At the beginning of Bangkok 8: A Novel, by John Burdett, we meet a pair of cops, former thugs who have had their brains dismantled and reassembled by a Buddhist Abbot. As we learn over time, they are honest cops in a way that makes just about everyone uncomfortable. They are Thai, and from the beginning we learn that cops are not supposed to be honest (otherwise, as one citizen point out, their pay would have to be increased and that would increase taxes).
That, of course is itself an oversimplification. The two are sent to tail an American marine. Two hours later the marine is dead in an unlikely fashion, trapped in a car with a bunch of poisonous snakes on yaa baa, the local amphetamine coctail. One of the cops dies trying to save the american. It is the sort of thing an arhat would do — a buddhist saint. The other cop, Sonchai, is devastated by the loss of his soul brother. It is seen as perfectly natural that he will kill those responsible for his partner’s death.
This doesn’t go over so well with the Americans charged with investigating the death of the marine. Sonchai has had extensive experience dealing with the west; his mother was a prostitute who was kept by a succession of western men in Europe and the United States. Even so, the female FBI agent sent to work with him is a source of mystery and frustration. She, in turn, is baffled by the way the one clean cop in Bangkok idolizes his boss, a gangster in cop’s clothes.
Sonchai is an intelligent man, very observant, who can see his own past lives and feel the histories of the people around him. This does not strike him as odd or even particularly noteworthy. It’s not some secret power he uses to solve cases. It’s just an empathy he has that lets him see below the surface of the people he meets, allowing him to reach conclusions that would be difficult to arrive at logically.
Obviously, the clash between western and eastern thought is a big theme in this story. This theme is made most obvious in the context of the sex trade. Prostitutes, brothels, minor wives, and other more disturbing forms of people selling their bodies for money, security, or even love abound, and give ample opportunity to contrast cultural responses. Sonchai’s own feelings on the subject are very complicated, and are almost as confusing to his countrymen as to westerners.
There are times when the author gets a bit preachy about the subject, and unfortunately one of the preachiest times is the last chapter of the book. It is a satisfying last chapter on some levels, but it actually embraces the very patness the previous chapter openly rebelled against, which is disappointing. The actions of one of the characters in the last chapter defied reason.
Last chapter notwithstanding, this was a really good read. I like stories that effectively portray a view of life different than mine, in such a way that it makes complete sense. This story succeeds admirably on that scale. In addition, it’s not a half-bad mystery. There are a lot of different forces in conflict with one another (some of whom never emerge from the shadows, which is cool), and its got old alliances, betrayals, gut-wrenching evil, and revenge. Not everyone is completely sane.
It’s really not a thriller, thought there are plenty of tense moments, and even some intense ones. The author does an excellent job communicating the extremity of situations (some very bad) without being gratuitous. You see enough to fill in the blanks. I like that in a story. This book was a fun read with plenty of food for thought, and if you don’t mind things getting a little gritty sometimes (although not nearly as explicit as many other things I’ve read lately), then you might want to give this one a try. I’m sure glad I did.
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