Apparently Bangkok thrillers have a certain notoriety for sensationalism, and Burdett’s Bangkok 8 doesn’t fail in that regard, but it is also so much more. In fact, this noir detective story could be a Phillip Marlowe, if it weren’t for the fact that its hero’s name is a little harder to pronounce. Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is the son of a Thai bar girl and a long-gone Vietnam-era American soldier, is a little too comfortable with many of the denizens of Bangkok’s notorious red-light districts, is reputedly the only honest cop left on the Royal Thai Police Force, smokes meth-laced weed on occasion, and regularly converses with the previous incarnations of the many people –victims and suspects alike—he meets on the job. Oh, and he is an occasionally-lapsed Buddhist and a total hoot.
The story opens with the classic locked-door who-dun-it. An American marine sergeant stationed in Bangkok is found dead inside his padlocked Mercedes—murdered by a swarm of drug-enraged cobras and one hungry python. Sonchai and his partner, who were tailing the guy, didn’t see a thing. The partner dies a particularly nasty death right away, and although the assassination of the U.S. Marine sergeant falls within the purview of the American authorities, it falls to Sonchai under Thai tradition to avenge his partner’s death. And so an unlikely pairing of the Buddha-worshipping Sonchai out for revenge and a bemused lady FBI agent out to win a promotion and bed her mixed-race Thai colleague sets the stage for some delightfully funny culture clashes and philosophical exchanges.
Along the way, we meet Sonchai’s mother, a retired whore and first-class businesswoman; Sonchai’s superior Col. Vikorn, who has turned corruption into an art form and who feels both blessed and cursed to have living-saint Sonchai on his staff; a doctor whose specialty is sex change operations, and at least two suspects, a very wealthy, very influential and very kinky American jade trader, and a gorgeous 6-foot-tall Afro-Asian mystery lady. And then there is Sonchai’s partner, who isn’t quite gone.
Beneath the exotic storyline and zany characters, however, are a lot of real life issues that few Americans have to face up close. For example, Sonchai introduces us to his very personal view of survival in an impoverished third world country, where the widespread drug and sex trade has become the financial lifeblood of the country, and profound corruption the backbone of Thai life. He examines issues such as religion, sex, and death which are both universal and yet so culturally unique in Thailand as to be almost unrecognizable to we Westerners. He takes a country known both for its charming people and its seamy underside, and shatters the stereotypes. Burdett doesn’t just take us on a guided tour of Bangkok, but he forces us to see the Thai people as they live–on the streets, in their homes and where they work. My only surprise is that Burdette—a Brit who lived for years in Hong Kong before moving part-time to Bangkok—seems to have put his finger on the pulse of this wild and crazy city, while giving his readers the culture shock we so richly deserve.