Yes, there's a gruesome murder (by snake) at the beginning of John Burdett's "Bangkok 8," and his police detective narrator, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, swears to hunt down the culprit whose crime incidentally leads to the death of Sonchai's partner and best friend. The novel's plot is twisty, and there's sex and violence along the way. But personally, I'd read a book that followed Sonchai around Bangkok on a day he spent writing up parking tickets. His take on the Thai way of looking at the world is that beguiling and illuminating, his affection for the funky, overwrought yet strangely laid-back city he roams is that contagious.
The half-caste son of an accomplished Thai bar girl and an American G.I. she has long refused to identify, Sonchai also has a wry perspective on the differences between his Asian countrymen and Westerners, whom the Thais call "farangs." He gets paired up with Jones, a female FBI agent (the murder victim was a Marine and a wealthy, jet-setting American jeweler is implicated), which gives him an angle on the culture clash beyond his usual encounters with backpackers, servicemen and sex tourists. Jones would like to offer him an even more intimate view, but he resists; a devout Buddhist, and a man of eminent good sense, he'd rather not be yet another exotic treat for a visiting farang. Besides, "the Buddha taught freedom from appetite."
Such restraint isn't the only way Sonchai differs from the familiar heroes of police thrillers. One of his detecting skills is the ability to catch glimpses of people's past incarnations (and therefore the karma directing their current one) and he sees ghosts, hungry ones. His partner's death, and graduation to the next, presumably better incarnation, is less an occasion for pity than for envy: "Would you be sorry about a sunset?" Sonchai can only shake his head at Jones' "belief that there is anything logical about human existence. I suppose it must be the delusion of the West, a cultural defilement caused by all those machines they keep inventing." A prime example: the new cellphone the FBI gives him, with a ring selection that includes "a choice of 15 different tunes, which includes the American national anthem but not that of any other country. 'Star Wars' is the only attractive option ... Angrily, I realize that Motorola has led me down a labyrinth of apparent choice leading to a dead end. I have found the perfect paradigm of Western culture."
Equally perplexing is the Western obsession with sex: "The path to the farang heart lies invariably through the genitals," he observes. "To look for nirvana in someone's crotch, now that is really dumb," is how one bar girl puts it. Sonchai's mother, now retired to a comfortable villa in the countryside, still gets calls from old customers: "The loneliness of farangs can be a fatal disease which distorts their minds and tortures them until they snap. When they begin to sink they grasp at any straw, even a Bangkok whore they had for a week on a sex vacation long ago."
Yet Sonchai's Bangkok is no mere backwater repository of pre-modern wisdom. It's a metropolis crammed with former villagers looking to make it in the big city, and facing "the sadistic vivisection of life into hours, minutes, seconds ... one of the few hardships never inflicted by the soil." To fuel this round-the-clock labor market, the yaa baa (methamphetamine) trade arose, helping fisherman work all night for the expanded Pacific Rim market and keeping bar girls on the dance floor and truckers on the road.
Though the cops occasionally and brutally crack down on the dealers, the whole of Bangkok's civil society works through a complex, and strangely functional, system of payoffs and corruption, as Sonchai explains to Jones. This makes Sonchai, who refuses to accept any bribes because he's working off the bad karma caused by his role in a murder during his misspent youth, a bit of a misfit. But sometimes the detective's supervising colonel, a man of magisterial worldliness and baroque intentions, finds that Sonchai's integrity comes in handy.
Like I said, there's a pretty good detective story in there, too, but it could have withered away and I'd barely have missed it amid the stories of soccer-mad call girls who want to watch the game while servicing their clients, pit stops at the book-stuffed apartment of a drunken Russian panderer, and disquisitions on the Chiu Chow Chinese, "the finest businesspeople in the world, then, now, and for maybe a thousand years past" (they run the jade trade, which figures in the plot). I have no idea how accurate Burdett's depiction of the Thai outlook may be (he's a British ex-lawyer who lives in Hong Kong), but "Bangkok 8" nonetheless feels like a deliciously fresh breath of air in the often musty halls of detective fiction, as well as a more-than-fond tribute to a people whose charm is already legendary.
Our next pick: An expertly plotted tale of an 1890s Alabama gang war