Like the city it’s set in, Bangkok 8 is a colourful, vibrant, loud and intense book.
In this first book of the series, John Burdett explores crime, Buddhism, Thai attitudes towards sex, sex-change operations, prostitution, bribery, the lives of the “half-caste” in Thailand, the attitude of the farangs or westerners in Thailand…. and more.
And like another set-in-Southeast-Asia murder series I enjoy, Bangkok 8 is imbued by the presence of the other world. He is a firm believer in karmic reincarnation, and is able to glimpse a person’s previous lives.
“With us the lifting of the egoic veil at the moment of death reveals the workings of karma in all its pitiless majesty: see that clubfoot in your next life, that’s from when you fouled your best friend on the football pitch; see those buckteeth the size of gravestones, that’s your cynical sense of humor; see that early death from leukemia, that’s your greed.”
Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is assigned to a murder case of a US Marine killed by snakes. And it is personal because the same snakes took the life of Sonchai’s partner and best friend Pichai.
Sonchai is a ‘half-caste’ – the son of a Thai prostitute and an American soldier. And one of the few honest cops in Bangkok (he and Pichai became monks after killing a drug dealer when they were young). So he makes for an unusual character.
Throw in some shady businessmen, a gun-loving female FBI agent, an entrepreneurial former-prostitute mother about to run her own brothel, plenty of dirty cops, and a plot that just gets a little more convoluted with each twist and turn, and you get this eclectic first book in a crime series set in Bangkok.
“…we don’t seem to have the same hang-ups as many Western women. The West tries to turn the act of sex into a religious experience, when to us it is no more than scratching an itch. I’m afraid we’re not as romantic as we seem. And perhaps we are a little strange. In other countries such as Japan and South Korea, prostitution declined dramatically as the economy improved. When our economy improves, the number of prostitutes tends to go up rather than down.”
I guess I was a little disappointed when I realised that this book brought in Bangkok’s sex industry. Is that really what pops into mind when westerners think of Bangkok? I quite like visiting Bangkok – as I do the other parts of Thailand like Chiang Mai, Phuket and Koh Samui – it has great food, nice people and plenty of shopping. It’s a nice getaway just a few hours’ flight from Singapore. Sure, you wander into the wrong parts and there will be drunk farangs, local men pushing flyers of nude girls in your face, but there is still so much that isn’t about girlie bars and prostitution.
Perhaps I have been comparing it too much to Colin Cotterill’s Dr Siri Paiboun series set in neighbouring Laos, its main character being the country’s chief coroner, tasked to investigate murders. A far more interesting, unique perspective to a crime series. But is that really fair? After all, what does the average reader know about Laos? I sure didn’t know much. Whereas Bangkok already has that reputation, so a crime novel set there has to lead to the inevitable?
I don’t know… perhaps I am putting too much thought into this….
I like that it is set in Thailand. There aren’t all that many books set in Southeast Asia (my list here) so it is always refreshing to read one. So here I am hoping that the next book in the series, Bangkok Tattoo, will move away from that (although as Sonchai’s mother is a former prostitute, and by the end of the book he and his mother now co-own a brothel, I hardly think this will be the case!).
And of course a book about Thailand should not go without a mention of its amazing cuisine, so I will leave you with some food for thought:
“We are sitting at a food stall after finishing a meal of tom-yum soup, fried fish, spicy cashew nut salad, three kinds of chicken and thin rice noodles on a street in Pratunam. Our table is loaded with six different dipping sauces, beer bottles, chopped ginger, fried peanuts, mouse-shit peppers and bits of lime. We are about twelve inches from the traffic jam but the stall is famous for the quality of its roast duck curry. It is so famous the police colonel in charge of the district doesn’t dare to bust or squeeze it even though its tables and chairs take up most of the sidewalk and force pedestrians to risk their lives among the traffic. Thai cuisine is the most complex, subtle, variable and generally the best in the world. It knocks the socks off fussy French and flaky Chinese, although one must give credit where it is due: during Nong’s one and only Japan trade (in Yokohama, a Yakuzi mobster with impeccable manners whose chronic migraine could only be relieved by more or less continuous sex): on my first bite of Kobe beef I forgave Pearl Harbor on your behalf, farang.
Protected by a firewall of chili, our cooking has been immune to the corruption suffered by other great cuisines due to Western influence and the best food can still be found in humble homes and, more especially, on the street. Every Thai is a natural gourmet and cops don’t bust the best food stalls if they know what’s good for them.”
I read this book for my personal challenge Reading Southeast Asia in August.
John Burdett is a former lawyer who lived and worked in Hong Kong for twelve years. For a time, he was employed by the Hong Kong Government. He later worked in private practice. Eventually, Burdett decided to abandon law and pursue a career as a novelist. Burdett now splits his time between France and Bangkok and continues to research his novels in various locations in Thailand.
A Personal History of Thirst
The Last Six Million Seconds
Bangkok 8: A Novel
The Godfather of Kathmandu