Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Robert Burdett's Bangkok Books

Bangkok Haunts came out in June 2007 and I just finished reading it. Afterwards, I bought Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo and as soon as Haunts is out in trade paper I'll get it as well. Yes, I really like these books. I'm not going to do a full-on review since they are readily available on the Internet. I will write a bit about the appeal the Bangkok books have for me.

First, some background. John Burdett was a lawyer in Hong Kong but gave it up to become a writer. Bangkok 8 marks his start as a full-time writer though he had written two books previously. I believe he now lives in Bangkok.

Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts are first person narratives by Sonchai Jitleecheep. He directly addresses the reader who he calls farang, a Thai term referring to a western foreigner. Sonchai himself is half western, the product of a Thai prostitute and American G.I. in Bangkok on R&R from the Vietnam War. Sonchai is also an honest police detective in District 8 run by the corrupt Colonel Vikorn.

Sonchai as an honest cop surrounded by corruption is an interesting thread running through the three books. In his youth Sonchai and his best friend Pichai were involved in drug dealing. Pichai killed a dealer and he and Sonchai were sent to a Buddhist monastery for a year. The abbot, who is also the brother of Colonel Vikorn, directed Sonchai and Pichai to become honest police men in order to repair the damage to their karmas resulting from the murder of the drug dealer.

Burdett skillfully weaves Buddhist principles, karma, reincarnation, morality, and the difficulties of balancing the practical necessities of the social environment in which his characters operate with Buddhist requirements. Burdett does this without becoming didactic and preachy. Rather, he has Sonchai use Buddhism to explain why things are as they are otherwise the westerner would not be able to comprehend the events. If you are not interested in reading about Buddhism and how people can be guided by Buddhism, then skip these books. As for me, I'm going to find my copy of What the Buddha Taught and actually read it this time.

Each of these books have one central and horrific event. In Bangkok 8 it involves snakes, in Bangkok Tattoo it is tattoos, removal of, and in Bangkok Haunts it is a snuff film. Burdett structures cracking good stories incorporating these events. Sonchai's drive to find the truth in spite of personal danger is riveting and the second reason these books appeal to me.

Burdett has immersed himself in Thai culture. It is the sleazy side with drugs, prostitution, and police corruption. His books are not Thai cozies with a lovable Buddhist monk solving crimes. This culture is raw, dangerous, and completely fascinating. This is the third reason I like these books - strong sense of place.

Before I forget, in my discussion of The Overlook I asked if anyone has written a story where the FBI and the locals get along. I forgot about Burdett's books. In Bangkok 8 the FBI and Sonchai have a very good working relationship and one of the agents, Kimberly Jones, returns in Bangkok Haunts. His relationship with the CIA in a post-911 world in Bangkok Tattoo, not so much.

I like these books because:

  • written in first person
  • really good plots
  • reader gets a good sense of place and a very different culture
  • Buddhism, morality, effects of decisions, karmic balance woven into the story not imposed on it
You might not like these books if:
  • you are not willing to read that prostitution is not always evil
  • you are squeamish
  • you don't want to hear that western values might not be appropriate everywhere
I recommend a visit to John Burdett's web site.
Bangkok 8 on Amazon
Bangkok Tattoo on Amazon
Bangkok Haunts on Amazon