Bangkok bound

Bangkok bound

Jefferson Chase looks at a classic tale of Buddhist vengeance.
Jefferson Chase

22 July 2008

Publication: Issue 73

Thailand was never the sort of place where I would have imagined people drinking much whisky, but I was forced to think again when I read John Burdett’s imaginative 2003 novel Bangkok Eight.The book is a tale of Buddhist vengeance, pitting the hero Sonchi Jitpleecheep – one of the few cops in the Thai capital who’s not on the take – against a mysterious network of criminals who inadvertently killed his partner.Along the way, readers learn a fair bit about Thai culture and society, including its not exactly sombre funeral customs.Pichai’s body will sit in its decorated coffin under a pavilion in the grounds of a local wat, with a band playing funeral dirges all afternoon.Then at sundown the music will liven up, Pichai’s mother will have succumbed to community pressure to throw a party. There will be crates of beer and whisky, dancing, a professional singer, gambling, perhaps a fight or two.Bangkok, of course, is well known for sexual debauchery, and indeed Sonchai is a half-caste son of a presumably American father and a Thai prostitute mother.His investigations into his partner’s death – brilliant detail: the murder weapon is a clutch of poisonous cobras – quickly take him to one of the capital’s red-light districts. There he engages in some non-judgmental reflections on the milieu of his birth.Nana Plaza is only the seed at the centre of the mango; there are thousands of bars in side sois and disused lots in every direction…about five acres of brown flesh for rent to a similar quantity of white. East meets West. How can I disapprove when I owe my existences to this conjunction?Though himself English, Burdett was a successful lawyer in the Far East, and his knowledge of the local mores of power feeds into this entertaining tale of mafia, jade, the skin trade and police graft.To wit the scene in which Sonchi is invited for drinks with his amiable, but dangerous superior: My master finishes his beer, calls for another and opens the bottle of Mekong whisky the girls have left on the table. He pours two beakers and adds ice from a bucket. ‘So, Sonchai, why don’t you tell me your views on the case so far?’ This is not an innocent question.Burdett hero has aptly been described as Phillip Marlowe meets Bodhisattva, but Bangkok Eight also reminded me of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment – another crime story that is simultaneously a philosophical meditation and a portrait of a great world city.It’s a very good sign of literary quality, when a book makes you want to visit somewhere you’ve never been or even thought about for more than 10 minutes. Bangkok was previously off my radar screen, but I can well imagine going there after reading Burdett’s fascinating book.And if I do, I’ll be sure to order a Mekong on the rocks.

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