Murder in a magic-ravaged land
by John Burdett
New York: Knopf, 2007 320 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
On the cover of Bangkok Haunts, the latest installment in John Burdett’s hard-core crime series set in Thailand’s chaotic capital, the face of a young Asian woman gazes sternly from the shadowed left eye of a bust of the Enlightened One. The woman depicted is Damrong, a beautiful Thai prostitute—as well as the “haunt” of the title—who is found strangled in her apartment. An anonymous video left for Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police reveals the modus operandi: sinister images of Damrong performing as the doomed star of a pornographic snuff film. This is Burdett’s third novel featuring Detective Jitpleecheep, a protagonist apparently crafted to embody Bangkok’s many contradictions: Sonchai is half Thai, half farang (or Westerner); a devout Buddhist who can muscle the goods out of a cowering suspect; a top cop who moonlights as the papasan of a lucrative brothel owned by his mother. He is also the murder victim’s jilted ex-lover, still haunted by dreams of Damrong’s cruel and seductive power. The cold-blooded attack and Sonchai’s personal connection to the victim cause him to declare in the book’s first sentence: “Few crimes make us fear for the evolution of our species. I am watching one right now.”
But as the cover art suggests and the novel’s erotic twists and turns indicate, we’re all embedded in the Buddha’s vision. Victim and killer, cop and witness, everyone is karmically linked, and the sex and violence experienced on this present killing field are just the tying and untying of the bonds forged over countless lifetimes. The human struggle will continue, in other words, until the last karmic knot is loosed. And in Bangkok Haunts, that means a heap of killing, harlotry, drug trafficking, and police corruption—not to mention vengeful ghosts and torture by elephant.
Blending the occult with police procedural might seem more the territory of Stephen King. But with an impressive cross-cultural expertise, John Burdett—an Englishman based in Hong Kong—pulls off the genre-bending with ease. During a talk at The Strand bookstore in Manhattan last summer, Burdett described venturing into Bangkok’s notorious red-light districts to research his crime series, seeking out and interviewing prostitutes. He said the women—many of them only girls—offered more insight into crime and punishment than the city’s beat cops, whom he feared he’d have to bribe for more information. He was also struck by the gritty contrast between the bargirls’ cooing performances with johns and their pious devotions to Buddha. Then, with an attention to detail perhaps characteristic of the lawyer he used to be, Burdett compiled his facts. The result is an outlandish tale whose bizarre occurrences are credible for being firmly grounded in the everyday events of a most extraordinary place.
The central storyline—Sonchai’s search for Damrong’s killer—involves the usual detective-genre cast of characters (the conflicted hero, the faithful sidekick, the meddlesome superior), but Burdett spins them all into an eccentric choreography. As in a Raymond Chandler yarn, there is corruption on every level, especially at the very top of the social pecking order. Take Sonchai’s police boss, Colonel Vikorn, a comically venal character whose “core methamphetamine business came to involve more and more lucrative export contracts” such as prostitution and porn. Vikorn isn’t happy about his star detective’s investigation into Damrong’s DVD killing, especially when the inquiry links one of Thailand’s wealthiest bankers, Khun Tanakan, to Damrong’s salacious activities. So was it a blackmail scheme gone sour that got the bewitching porn-star iced? “Don’t spoil a great case with too much perfectionism,” Vikorn tells Sonchai. Round up the usual suspects.
If only he could. Because where Colonel Vikorn is a stock villain drawn with bright colors, Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep fits the mold of such classic hard-boiled American heroes as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe: flawed, but incorruptible. As Sonchai tells Dan Baker, Damrong’s long-suffering ex-husband and cameraman and Vikorn’s obvious choice for fall guy, “you’ve lucked out with the one cop in Bangkok who doesn’t take money.” But it’s a shady past that informs Sonchai’s scrupulous present: a former drug abuser, he spent a year meditating in a forest monastery after standing by “giggling” while his old partner gutted their dealer with a broken bottle. Sonchai’s honesty, then, is the working out of his own hellish karma. Moreover, like Spade and Marlowe before him, Sonchai is a loner, but with an important twist: he’s the mixed-blood offspring of a Bangkok prostitute and a Vietnam War-era American soldier, an outcast from birth who feels no allegiance whatsoever to the institutionalized corruption greasing society’s wheels. And like his private-eye predecessors, Sonchai tirelessly prowls an urban nightmare in his quest for the truth—or in this instance, the Four Noble Truths—of the case.
But Damrong is no ordinary snuff film victim, either. She is the genre’s femme fatale who shatters the stereotype. In life, her sexual allure ensnared every man she met, including Sonchai, who was seduced by the “new superstar” when she first appeared at his mother’s brothel years before. Now, even in death, Damrong keeps calling the shots. Night after night, for instance, as Sonchai tosses and turns beside his pregnant wife (a married hard-boiled hero?), Damrong haunts his dreams: “Liberated from time and space, she was able to project a multiplicity of images: naked; half-naked; wearing a black ballgown with silver jewelry; topless in tight-fitting jeans with her long black hair intermittently covering her breasts.” Is this Sonchai’s unconscious processing of grief over his ex-lover’s murder? Or is it the tangled strands of their relationship unknotting a little more each night? Or maybe something in between?
There’s no doubt that copulating from beyond the big sleep is within Damrong’s range. According to her brother Gamon, a mysterious monk who parades through the narrative handing out elephant hair bracelets to the suspects—a neat take on the kiss of death—Damrong is “something of an arhat, or Buddhist saint.” She protected Gamon when both were the children of brutal criminals living in squalor. And now, interceding from beyond the pyre, Damrong demands payback, or gatdanyu, and enlists her brother in the book’s climactic, otherworldly scheme of revenge.
“You live in a magic-ravaged land,” says Kimberly Jones, Sonchai’s FBI contact. As a farang, she has no idea. Perhaps like the reader, Kimberly is hopelessly lost to explain the supernatural side of daily life in Thailand: the local custom of lucky colors to bless every day of the week; or the daredevil motorcycle-taxi drivers who rely on “garlands in honor of the journey goddess Mae Yanang” to zip themselves unscathed through the city’s endless traffic jams. Modern Bangkok’s infrastructure only facilitates ancient miracles.
There is also Sonchai’s compassionate, half-caste point of view to help the skeptical farang audience accept all these various wonders served up as pedestrian events. In a voice both sardonic and reverent, the detective straddles the psychological divide between a linear, logical point of view and a deeper, more circular outlook expressive of the dharma. While the plot develops in a kaleidoscopic landscape where yesterday, today, and tomorrow overlap like a Photoshop montage, Sonchai’s first-person, rigorously present-tense narration grounds the plodding day-to-day of a murder investigation and transforms it into an inevitable unfolding of the eternal Now. Author Burdett seems to have taken to heart the Dhammapada’s first aphorism: “Our life is the creation of our mind.” Everything conceivable is not only possible; it is already present, just waiting to be realized.
But make no mistake: for all its traditional dharma and curbside superstition, the Southeast Asia of Bangkok Haunts is a tragic, fallen land. The wounds inflicted during the excesses of the Vietnam War era—what our hero calls the “Nixon holocaust”—still bleed; and the screams still echo from the genocidal extremes of a failed Buddhist monk turned bloodthirsty warlord named Pol Pot, whose ex-Khmer Rouge zealots staff present-day Bangkok’s thriving underworld with its meth-crazed gunmen. This is a Third World capital struggling for First World status, a decade after that runaway bullet train left the station in the Asian economic meltdown; it is an outlaw bacchanal where sovereign constitutions are drafted with the ceremonial pens of IMF bankers, and where stricken denizens languish, gridlocked in their poverty. In such a dystopia, murder is as quick and repetitive as pressing Play on the remote. The only redemption for the teeming masses is an animist-influenced Buddhism and a native disdain for the flabby farangs, whose free-spending sex tours keep the bargirls flush enough to support their hungry families back home in the countryside.
Like a blistering dish of panang curry, Bangkok Haunts may not be to everyone’s taste. Yet its spicy carnality and slapstick sensibility are tempered by the author’s genuine compassion for his subject and obvious respect for his characters. This is fast-paced entertainment, not sutra. For those who like their mysteries off the beaten track, Bangkok Haunts is worth the trip.
David Goewey is the author of Crash Out: The True Tale of a Hell’s Kitchen Kid and Bloodiest Escape in Sing Sing History.