A few thoughts about Bangkok 8, by John Burdett
So this is one of those thriller novels that everyone gets recommended eventually. “You HAVE to read this!” They’ll say, “it’s really weird, but totally engrossing! It’s about this Thai cop, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who’s a Buddhist, believes in reincarnation, and solves murders in Bangkok.”
A good enough pitch to draw you in, if you’ve read enough thrillers set in Europe and America and crave something different. And the very beginning of the book serves to hook you in: an American marine, being trailed by Sonchai and his partner, is killed by setting loose a bunch of cobras and a python in his car. If nothing else, that’s a unique murder weapon. To make things worse, Sonchai’s partner and best friend is killed by the same cobras. Naturally, Sonchai decides he has to kill the murderer to take revenge.
So far, so good. But then the story seems to get bogged down. Pages and pages of Thai society, about the intricacies of the prostitution business, of drug addiction, corruption, and so on and so forth. Maybe it wasn’t that long, but it feels like way too much. I was on the point of putting down the book in boredom, but thankfully the story picks up again about 2/3rds of the way through. Or maybe you just get used to the pace…
The climax is a typically “Oriental” style one, with an appropriate justice being served to the culprit. Come to think of it, the whole book drips with the exotic scent of the orient. I can see how that would be a draw for the intended target (western) audience, but it seemed a little off-putting to me, even though I’m not a Thai. I mean, even these current Japanese novels (The Devotion of Suspect X, Six Four, and so on), are set in a Far-East country but they don’t make a big deal of it. It’s not even possible to say “but other than that exoticism, the book is good”, because it’s so entwined in the plot - which is a good thing, by the way. I imagine the Inspector Ghote books feel the same way… haven’t read them yet.
One thematic thread that must be mentioned here is Gender - we have a transsexual as a character and there’s a good deal of discussion around sexuality, prostitution, and how men treat the business differently from women. It’s interesting to compare the approaches taken to the topic in this book versus my previous read, Cut Like Wound, by Anita Nair. Burdett (or rather his interpretation of Thai culture) takes a cheerfully pragmatic approach to the whole thing, portraying it as “everyone eventually gets what s/he wants out of it, so why worry?”
Overall, an all right one-time read, if only to indulge the friends who keep recommending it. Would I read the next few books in the series? At this point, probably not. But I can sense the possibility of my mood changing at some point in the future, so we’ll see.