Before I get to the quibbles let me just say that Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett is a damn good read. Interesting characters, many of whom are not particularly good people, fill this story. It follows the story Bangkok 8, but stands alone as a complete story; while having read the precursor will add understanding of some of the nuances, I think one could pick up this book cold and enjoy it tremendously.
On to the quibbles: There are many passages about the contrast between east and west, about the different way that people think in Asia. There are times when Burdett goes beyond the need of the story to present and defend Thai culture and the sex trade in general. After one too many times harping on this theme, it started to feel defensive and even condescending at times. It started to feel western. Our narrator, Sonchai, himself a fairly advanced Buddhist for being a corrupt cop, were he really Thai, would have let events speak for themselves more. Thus the writer’s voice undermines his narrator’s voice, and the story is weakened.
But let’s look past that, shall we? This is a mystery story, but even the question they are trying to answer is evasive. What happened that night in the hotel room when an American was mutilated and murdered seems of only secondary importance. What concerns everyone involved are the consequences of the crime. As various interests try to influence the interpretation of the crime, things escalate. The Americans want to blame Al Qaida. The moderate muslims want it to be a simple crime; they are working to keep politics stable in the south next to Muslim Malaysia. Colonel Vikorn, head of police in the part of town where the crime occurred, wants to keep one of his star prostitutes out of jail. Sonchai’s dead partner has advice that seems to make no sense at all. Then things get complicated.
One of the best things about the narrator is the reverence Sonchai has for his boss. The relationship is a mass of contradictions; Vikorn is a drug-dealing cop and one wily SOB. Sonchai makes the whole force nervous with his ethics but he has nothing but praise for the man who runs the department (and is a majority shareholder in Sonchai’s mother’s brothel). Vikorn falsifies evidence, and Sonchai can do nothing but praise the skill with which he did it. Then there’s Lek, Sonchai’s young partner. The Colonel is glad hear that he’s not gay; he’s merely a transvestite, a female spirit in a male body. The Buddha teaches that this is a natural state and points out that such people must walk a very difficult path. Do not judge; you’ve been one before and you will be again. And there’s Chanya, the beautiful prostitute who took credit for killing the American. Chanya, whom Sonchai has come to love, even while admiring her skill making other men love her.
So, there are lots of people who want different things. Colonel Vikorn proves adept at coming up with evidence that will satisfy all parties. Every time he does, however, a new interest shows up on he scene, or contradictory evidence comes up in a way that can’t easily be ignored. There is a point, maybe two-thirds of the way through, where Sonchai says (I’m paraphrasing but the actual quote is equally straightforward), “that’s the end of the story. There’s just a coda to follow.”
The coda starts out like a well-behaved wrap-up would, then explodes. I don’t want to tell you too much more, but there comes a time when a man must pay for his actions, and sometimes that price can be unpleasant.
It’s hard for me to turn off the editor brain while I read these days. I’m cruising along and sooner or later I hit something that makes me think about the writing rather than the story. I’m happy to report that for this book most of those interruptions were positive; sometimes an unexpected but perfect adjective, other times a satisfying twist of phrase, once of twice a particularly sweet metaphor. The only negatives were when he betrayed the voice of the narrator to beat home that it’s different there. Got it. Thanks. Let’s move on with the story. It’s a really good story.
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