"Bangkok Tattoo" by John Burdett

In this follow-up to "Bangkok 8," Buddhist police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is back, exposing more corruption -- and hilarity -- in the Thai capital's red-light district.

Published June 6, 2005 5:41PM (EDT)

John Burdett's giddy, wicked, hilarious crime novels are not for the oversensitive American. Amazon.com reader reviews for "Bangkok 8," the first installment in his series featuring Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Buddhist police detective in the Thai capital's red light district, whine about the book's "anti-Western" attitude. Now, with the arrival of the eagerly awaited sequel, "Bangkok Tattoo," even Entertainment Weekly has gotten in on the act, complaining of "stereotypes."

To which we, the devoted admirers of Sonchai, say: Pussies! Or, to hew closer in the spirit of our long-suffering, semi-enlightened hero: Lighten up, farang. The chance to view Westerners through skeptical Asian eyes (sort of; after all, Burdett is a Brit living in Hong Kong) is one of the things that make the Bangkok 8 novels so delicious. The story lines are baroquely perverse ("a transsexual Thai -- M2F -- murders a black American marine with drug-crazed cobras -- standard stuff in District 8" is how Sonchai sums up the first book), but all the fizz comes from crossing the culture gap.

"Bangkok Tattoo" begins with a near-catastrophe at the Old Man's Club, a brothel catering to Western baby boomers (Viagra tout inclus; Lou Reed on the jukebox) of which Sonchai, somewhat against his wishes, is a co-owner. The other proprietors are Nong, his mother -- "not merely an exceptionally successful whore (ret.) but also a full-fledged 21st-century businesswoman of international quality" -- and his boss, Police Colonel Vikorn, a puppet master who makes Machiavelli look like Forrest Gump. Their "superstar" employee, the divine Chanya, has staggered out of her hotel room, leaving a disemboweled and castrated American john behind.

It's immediately clear to everyone that what's required is "not an investigation per se, but that infinitely more challenging forensic task so lightly spoken of as a 'cover-up.'" After all, it's unthinkable that Chanya be subjected to the "crude and undiscriminating justice they have in America where, if they extradited her, they would never make allowances for her youth and beauty, the stress inherent in her profession, or the ugliness of her victim."

But when the victim turns out to be CIA, things get complicated. Vikorn, whose "super brain" Sonchai regards with an abiding awe, plants a long black beard hair -- purloined from the body of a dead terrorist -- on the scene: "They're practically blaming the weather on Al Qaeda over there," he barks. "Just say it's Al Qaeda and they'll be eating out of our hands." The real story, uncovered by Sonchai through the inevitable twists, turns and switchbacks (including a visit to the undeveloped, more Muslim south), turns out to be so bizarre the CIA wouldn't believe it anyway.

Even a moderately alert farang reader, though, will probably be able to spot the true culprit before Sonchai does, but then ingenious mystery plots aren't really Burdett's speciality. The story merely provides the pretext for a tour through Sonchai's "parallel universe," a place where corruption is how things work, and they work very well, thank you. It's a place where Vikorn and Nong look back fondly on the Vietnam War, when he was trading opium in Laos and she catered to the GIs who smoked it. ("An opiated man is more or less impotent -- which reduced the wear and tear on a professional's assets -- and not inclined to argue about fee structure.")

"Bangkok Tattoo" is less concerned with Sonchai's delicate negotiations with his own faith than "Bangkok 8" was. (He's the only policeman in town who doesn't take bribes, and his investigative tools include dream messages from his late partner and glimpses of suspects' past lives.) The perils and opportunities faced by Chanya, and the absurd efforts of American intelligence to do anything more than make fools of themselves in Southeast Asia ("Imagine an overmuscled, six-foot farang with an interpreter trying to be incognito down in Hat Yai on a Friday night among our little brown people," Vikorn groans) take center stage. Sometimes the truth hurts, but if your skin's not too thin for it, District 8 is the place to be.

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By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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