Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Trouble's Brewing in Bangkok

By Beth Green

I read for the pleasure of slipping into another place. Of being able to, unseen, explore worlds and venues I wouldn’t dare peek into in real life. I read because I like to step into a character’s skin and experience the world through their senses, filtered through their personal histories. 

And that’s why I have enjoyed reading John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series. Set in Bangkok, Thailand, the books follow Buddhist police detective Sonchai as he struggles to balance the damage the job does to his soul with the good he’s doing the world. Sonchai is half-Thai, half-American, and he both bridges the two cultures and is marginalized by both. He is shunned, or sometimes raised up, by Thais who think he’s a foreigner, yet feels uncomfortable embracing Western culture wholly.

Sonchai is a devout Buddhist—although his lifestyle is certainly non-devout—and the references to religion and Sonchai’s constant upkeep of his soul set him apart from other mystery narrators I’ve read. Mysticism also lends him a hand in his police investigations, tinging the otherwise noir thrillers with a touch of magical realism.

At odds with, yet somehow complimentary to the grisly cases Sonchai covers—snuff films, disembowelings, trafficking of all kinds—the dreamy first-person narration in the books is smooth and unrushed. The books are told in the present tense, which to be honest jarred me for the first few pages. This unusual style, however, emphasizes Sonchai’s attempts to catch the moments of his life even as he seems to look back on it from a distant future standpoint.

Sonchai’s mother is a former prostitute who still has business with “the Game,” as Sonchai refers the sex industry. Because of his mixed parentage and flawless English, Sonchai is often asked to take on difficult cases (usually dealing with dead foreigners), and his investigations bring him into contact with people all over the spectrum of Bangkok—from canal taxi drivers to Japanese mobsters, from drug smugglers to Russian hookers and from FBI agents to Tibetan holy men.

I lived in Thailand for five months and have visited Bangkok several times. I have myself wandered down the red light district streets, giggling at (and yes, a little scared of) the absurdity of the flesh trade there. Burdett’s books take the reader into a fascinating, and sordid, world where the farm girls turning tricks have purer hearts than the policemen who don’t always manage to protect them from harm. Sonchai, a character raised in brothels, is both a jaded cop and a perpetual innocent. He is both a hero and a coward.

The series currently has five books. The newest novel, Vulture Peak, is still on my to-read list; I’m waiting to finish some of the other books I have going so that I can fully immerse myself in Sonchai’s world. The previous four books were quick reads that I wished I’d savored properly, and I hope to do that for this one.

The Sonchai books start with mesmerizing Bangkok 8. This thriller introduces quirky Sonchai on one of the worst days of his life. His best friend, with whom he seems to have a link through past lives (this is the Buddhism theology and shades of magical realism coming in), is killed by snakes, and Sonchai struggles to deal with both the loss of Pichai and his increasingly demanding job.  
In the following Bangkok Tattoo, the reader follows Sonchai even deeper into personal territory—his mother’s business and his family history. A prostitute working for his mother may have murdered an American CIA agent. Complicating this, Sonchai thinks he’s in love with the suspect. 
Bangkok Haunts may be my favorite of the four books I’ve read so far. In this one, Sonchai is an expectant father trying to find the maker of a horrific snuff film. He now has a transgender assistant, Lek, adding to the eccentric, memorable cast of characters.

In The Godfather of Kathmandu, the slightly comic figure of Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai’s boss, decides he wants to be a Mafia don and sends Sonchai off to Nepal to help Vikorn smuggle heroin—not the usual practice of either a devout Buddhist or an idealistic cop. In Nepal, Sonchai meets Tibetan refugees who blow his mind.
The next book, Vulture Peak (did I mention I’m looking forward to it?) deals with human organ trafficking and infidelity.

The author, John Burdett, is originally from England. He lived in Hong Kong for several years, became interested in Thailand, and now, according to his website, divides his time between Bangkok and France.

Burdett’s books turn sultry Bangkok—best remembered by many tourists for its shining golden temples, dirt-cheap shopping and slightly Disney-fied red light district—into a labyrinth of intrigue. When I settle down with a book to follow Sonchai through his moral and work-related adventures, I know the city—in fact, the whole country of Thailand—will open up for me in a way it never did when I was actually there.


  1. This sounds like a really fascinating series, Beth. I love multicultural stories like this. And the thriller/magical realism combo is intriguing. These books are going on my TBR list!

  2. Beth, this is a new author for me. I look forward to reading some of his work. The characters sound so quirky and interesting.

  3. Great review, Beth! The protagonist sounds fascinating. I will have to look for Burdett's work.


  4. I don't read much of this genre, but from your review I look forward to keeping up with Sonchai! Thank you Beth!