NEW YORK TIMES
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
BOOKS OF THE TIMES
Bangkok's soul reflected in a cop's dual nature
The double murder that kicks off John Burdett's latest thriller, "Bangkok 8," is gruesome and memorable. It's also borrowed from Truman Capote's novella "Handcarved Coffins," in which a couple are set upon by a bevy of crazed and drugged rattlesnakes hidden in their car.
This time the snakes are methamphetamine-fueled cobras (and one gigantic python), and the people killed are an American marine named Bradley, who has driven his gray Mercedes E series into a dangerous section of Bangkok, and Pichai, a member of the Royal Thai police force, who went to investigate. It is a pair of murders that lead the novel's narrator, another Bangkok cop named Sonchai Jitpleecheep, on a quest to avenge his partner's murder and that lead the reader of this wildly uneven thriller on a fast, furious and increasingly ludicrous chase.
Mr. Burdett, a nonpracticing lawyer and the author of two previous novels, seems to have read a lot of detective stories and policiers and watched a lot of movies, and he has folded all this knowledge into a stew pot of a thriller with uncommon energy and an alarming lack of discrimination. The first part of the book motors along speedily, transporting the reader into an exotic noir world that's part "Blade Runner" and part Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles.
Sonchai, the son of a Thai prostitute and an American serviceman, proves to be a quixotic and engaging narrator, and his meditations on the differences between the East and the West make him the ideal guide to Bangkok, a city reeling from the discontinuities of globalization, a city where Buddhist piety and capitalist greed vie for residents' souls, and the eternal imperatives of sex and power and money collude and collide.
In the opening chapters of "Bangkok 8," Mr. Burdett provides an electric, strobe-lighted view of the city, torn between the 21st century of Internet cafes and sky trains and the third world poverty of squatter camps and concrete tenements. It is a dangerous urban magnet for displaced farmers and young, penniless women who have "all the guts, all the enthusiasm, all the na´vetÚ, all the hope, all the desperation necessary to make it in the big city." District 8, where Sonchai works, is "its heart and its armpit," a neighborhood where yaa-baa (as methamphetamines are called there) floods the street, a neighborhood where it seems most of the women are whores and most of the police officers are on the take.
Sonchai and his partner were known as the only honest cops on their beat, having pledged to become monks to mend their karma after killing a drug dealer. Hokey as Sonchai's dual nature (would-be Buddhist saint and hard-as-nails cop) may sound, Mr. Burdett manages to make it plausible in the early sections of the novel, turning it into a reflection of Bangkok's own divided soul. In the first third of the book he uses his considerable storytelling powers to braid together Sonchai's investigation of the snake murders and his efforts come to terms with his own identity.
But as the case grows increasingly Byzantine, Mr. Burdett's plotting goes into manic hyperdrive, and his narrative and character development become increasingly slapdash. Grotesque, voyeuristic scenes are dropped haphazardly into the novel, and even the dialogue grows more and more mannered and contrived.
We're told that Bradley, the murdered marine, was involved in jade and drug smuggling and that he was seen with a mysterious woman named Fatima, who may have been involved with a wildly rich and powerful jeweler named Warren, who was known to be a friend of the rich and powerful, and who is alleged to have had a secretive and violent sexual past. All of these characters may or may not be involved with Sonchai's boss, a charismatic but corrupt cop, who in turn may be pursuing a business deal with Sonchai's mother.
Grisly information about the sex industry in Bangkok is shoehorned into the story line with awkward narrative devices like having Sonchai periodically listen to a radio call-in show and flashbacks involving Sonchai's mother's liaisons with a startling array of foreigners, which are intermittently inserted to explain his cosmopolitan upbringing.
None of the women in this novel are portrayed in remotely credible terms. Sonchai's mother is a small town whore turned entrepreneur who now uses the Internet to advertise her new brothel for elderly men. Sonchai's potential love interest, an F.B.I. agent named Kimberley Jones, who is supposed to be helping him on the snake murder case, is one of those movie sidekicks who exist simply to provide some interludes of romantic banter between the action scenes. And Fatima turns out to be a composite villain-victim, cobbled together from a lot of Grade B movie and "Nightstalker" television movie parts.
It's hard to know why Mr. Burdett let the promising premise of this novel devolve into such a mess of borrowings and cheap set pieces: "Bangkok 8" is a novel that begins as a hard-boiled detective story cum bildungsroman and ends as a crude, sensationalistic potboiler involving a carved jade phallus, a Russian snuff tape and two sex-change operations.
Created: January 8, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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