Saturday, March 06, 2010

Bangkok 8

Bangkok 8 is the first of John Burdett’s Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels, a series that with 2010’s The Godfather of Kathmandu, now numbers four titles. Sonchai, the product of a union between an American Vietnam War soldier and a Thai bargirl, brings exceptional talents to his work. He speaks perfect English and has such a good understanding of Western culture that he makes the perfect front man for his department when it comes to dealing with crimes involving Westerners. And a doozy of a case has just been dumped in his lap.

An American Marine sergeant has been killed in a bizarre plot involving a multitude of snakes hopped up on methamphetamine and a huge python that comes close to swallowing the victim’s head. When Sonchai’s partner, a fellow Buddhist whom he considers to be his true soul mate, is killed during the initial investigation of the crime, Sonchai swears to personally avenge his friend’s death. John Burdett’s surrealistic version of 21st century Bangkok, though, is not that simple.

Sonchai’s investigation leads him deeply inside the city’s booming sex trade, a world in which Western men of all ages and means flock to Bangkok by the thousands to purchase the sexual expertise of young Thai women (many of whom, sadly, are mere children). The American FBI, as a matter of course, is involved in the investigation but things begin to get complicated when a famous American millionaire is implicated in the murder along with a mysterious Thai giantess who is much more complicated than she first appears.

Bangkok 8 presents the city, and Thai culture, in such strange lights that the trust of many readers will be severely tested. But the book’s ending is so bizarre (no other description quite fits this ending) that even readers happy to go along for the ride to that point might find themselves shaking their heads in frustration. This is not so much a “who dunnit” as it is a “why they dunnit” and, while there is much of interest in Bangkok 8, the novel is unlikely to satisfy detective fiction fans who prefer their detectives to work in more realistic settings.

Rated at: 3.0

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