Last Seen in Bangkok
“Here's a little thing that's gonna please ya... just a little town down in Indonesia. Bangkok.”
I can see where Thailand, like Africa, is a place you could lose yourself in.
It’s one of those places I’m almost afraid to visit because I’m afraid I might like what I find there. I went to London and nearly lost my mind in the depths of the Thames. What could happen to me in a snake pit like Krung Thep?
All right, there’s no need to go native just yet and start abusing the expressive Thai language to talk about the place we know as Bangkok. There’s a one-two punch of great crime novels aiming their bruised attitudes at this magnificent, blistering metropolis -- the hottest city on Earth, or so I’m told -- that will be on bookshelves in no time at all.
First of all, there’s the third volume in John Burdett’s inspired series about a conflicted, acid-dry Bangkok detective named Sonchai Jitpleecheep. His reluctant hero is one of the most complex, well-written characters to emerge in crime fiction in the past decade and makes a triumphant return in Bangkok Haunts, hitting bookstores as we speak.
Sonchai made his first appearance in Bangkok 8, leaping immediately and intensely from the page. I was introduced to the man by accident, by way of the abridged audiobook read by accomplished character actor B.D. Wong. This Chinese American actor (and author in his own right) had done fantastic readings for dozens of books ranging from performances of the enlightening works of the Dalai Lama to playing George C. Chesbro’s dwarf detective Mongo in several audio adaptations.
Somehow, though, Wong’s voice began to fade into the background as Sonchai -- who speaks directly to you, in first person, no less, when telling his wretched tales -- became undeniably, astoundingly present. It’s almost as if Burdett is channeling his guilt-ridden, thoughtful Buddhist cop rather than inventing him. I finally had to leave the auditory behind and go to the source.
“Krung Thep means City of Angels, but we are happy to call it Bangkok if it helps separate a farang from his money,” says Sonchai, introducing Bangkok 8, in a line that captures all the exoticism, cynicism and lyrical genius of the character and indeed, the series.
The first book is an establishment of its singular character and his dirty little corner of the world, but it’s also a complex revenge drama. Our subtle detective works in the titular District 8 of the Royal Thai Police. In real life, it’s perhaps a far more zen environment, but in Burdett’s hands, the heart of the Red Light District is a hotbed of corruption, vice and squalor. A devout Buddhist, Sonchai was delivered into the hands of monks because of a grave adolescent sin but found to be not worthy. To square his debts, the monks thrust him into the police where he is to walk a righteous path and lead by example. As life often jarringly reminds us, it’s not always that easy.
As in subsequent adventures, Sonchai walks a delicate path between Eastern enlightenment and visceral Western bloodshed. Here, after a breathless car chase on Bangkok’s elevated expressway, his partner is murdered by hundreds of poisonous vipers in an ugly, horrifying scene that makes Snakes on a Plane seems like the juvenile diversion that it is. The book is filled with bizarre and mesmerizing characters including Sonchai’s graceful but depraved excuse for a boss, Colonel Vikorn, and his whoremongering mother, all of whom help in their own way as their native son solves the mystery of a murdered farang (foreigner) who meets the same ghastly end as his partner.
If Bangkok 8 was a whirlwind tour of the black heart of the Red Light District, its sequel, Bangkok Tattoo, proves that Burdett’s fictional corruption taints the whole country. On the home front, the book finds Sonchai’s entrepreneurial mother running the Old Man’s Club, dosing horny Westerners liberally with Viagra and separating them from their money with sexual partners of all shapes, makes and models. A dead farang, soon conveniently vanished by Colonel Vikorn, turns out to be CIA, sending Sonchai on a fool’s errand to run interference between a religious warlord and a pair of vengeful American agents. One of the amazing aspects of the books is how Burdett can create fast-paced, plausible story lines to challenge his contemplative protagonist, wrapping up each primal question delicately and definitively, and yet still allow Sonchai to let loose mid-story with his own meditative train of thought. Just let this passage about reincarnation wash over you...
Rebirth, farang (in case you’re wondering): You are lounging on a magnificent balcony open to the starry sky, divine music is playing with such exquisite perfection you can hardly stand it, when all of a sudden something terrible occurs: the magical sounds break up into an obscene cacophony. What is happening? Are you dying? You could put it that way. That awful noise is the first scream of an infant: you. You have been born into a human body hardwired with each and every transgression from the last time around, and now you must spend the next seventy years clawing your way back to the music. No wonder we cry.
It’s this peculiar point of view that makes the character so appealing. Sonchai believes he was born into an age of “Functional barbarism,” a poetic soubriquet that captures his underlying belief that people, for all our good intentions, ultimately destroy themselves via their greed and self-indulgence. We are not enlightened, you and I. It’s hard not to argue with him as Bangkok Haunts luridly brings Sonchai, once again, into a netherworld between life and death.
“Few crimes make us fear for the evolution of our species. I am watching one right now,” says Sonchai as the book opens. He stands in a dark room with FBI agent Kimberly Jones, watching a snuff film capturing the brutal end of Damrong, a renowned prostitute with whom Sonchai himself has had intimate relations.
Damrong’s ghost haunts Sonchai, who’s seduced nightly by vicarious dreams of the murdered whore. Kimberly is perhaps not the most vibrant character, but she gives the book an interesting Western perspective and counterpoint to Sonchai’s Jedi mind tricks. The third player in his ménage à trois is Chanya, the struggling former prostitute from Bangkok Tattoo, now pregnant with Sonchai’s child. Vikorn, meanwhile, is characteristically not in the least bit interested in actually solving crimes, having recently discovered from his meth-addled state that pornography could mean big bucks for his minor criminal fiefdom. The trail of all these myriad paths leads all the way to Cambodia, stumbling along the way into a bizarre, distinctly Asian interrogation technique called “The Elephant Game.” Only Sonchai could find blood in the treetops.
For a variant perspective on this jewel of Southeast Asia, let’s turn the stage over to another Westerner. Bangkok is so hot right now that it’s home to yet another series starring an itinerant detective -- of sorts. Accomplished suspense writer Timothy Hallinan introduces a potential series star in A Nail Through The Heart, published by William Morrow in July. The book stars Poke Rafferty, an expatriate travel writer who is on the verge of going native himself.
Poke came to Bangkok to write a book, Looking For Trouble in Thailand, a guide to, “things like how to beat official foreign-exchange rates, how to spot fake amber (hold a match under it), how much to bribe a cop, how to recognize counterfeit tens (look for the number 28 on one corner of the back of the bill), how to identify a transvestite before it’s too late, and how to know, within an hour of arriving in a strange city, where to find the best bars, the best clubs, the best food, the best clothes, the dodgiest entertainment, at the best prices.” Damn, I need one of those books: the hitchhiker’s guide to vice city.
Despite his questionable employment, Poke is a genuinely good guy in an indisputably bad place. He’s trying to scrape out a life with Rose, a recovering go-go dancer from the infamous Patpong Road, and Miaow, a skeptical street urchin whom Poke endeavors to adopt. Poke is very well-defined, if not quite an enigmatic character, but that clarity serves him well in the midst of the bevy of perilous assignments that emerge. First, the exile takes in another orphan nicknamed “Superman,” a friend of his daughter-like charge Miaow. Then he agrees to help a woman named Clarissa Ulrich find her ghostly uncle Claus, one more disappeared farang among a host of “sexpatriots.” As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Poke also agrees to take ten grand to help a furtive dragon lady named Madame Wing unearth a missing safe.
It’s a Gordian Knot of storylines, some of which might be a bit superfluous, but they ultimately unravel in a satisfying fashion. It’s to Hallinan’s credit that Poke’s good-natured temperament and his own obvious affection for Thailand soak through these minor drawbacks to create a likeable, suspenseful novel that holds great potential for its protagonist’s future.
That’s quite enough of the gods and devils within us for this month. I’m off to find Drunken Noodles, in whatever indiscreet form they may take in this godless village in which I’m ensconced. So you’d better go back to your bars, your temples, your massage parlors... and I’m sure our paths will cross again.