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All Thai’d up
John Burdett walks Bangkok’s wild side

Beneath the surface, aren’t we all the same? Probably not, according to the smart-ass Buddhism of Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the detective protagonist of John Burdett’s whiplash noir Bangkok Tattoo. Half farang — foreign — himself, he knows that we farangs are driven by demons, lacking the self-awareness and the perspective of his native Thai cohort. Which may be why when we venture into his city, we end up dead, usually in some horrible manner (castrated, gutted, or — in the previous book, Bangkok 8 — poisoned by meth-addled cobras). But despite our inability to forgo ego, we must share some similarities with the corrupt cops, gangsters, and whores of Jitpleecheep’s world. Why else would Burdett show us their lives also spinning out of control, derailed by greed or the lust for revenge? And why else would the subject of identity — appearance, sexuality, and literal skin — recur as Jitpleecheep dives into a case? No matter how many marigolds you feed the Buddha or how deeply you meditate, karma (as Jitpleecheep implies in his numerous asides) can be a bitch.

As in that first brilliantly funny outing, the problem for the half-Thai detective, son of a Bangkok prostitute and a US serviceman, is once again personal. In Bangkok 8, Jitpleecheep fell into a convoluted case when his partner was killed in the opening pages. This time, his heart is involved, as Chanya, the most beautiful prostitute in his mother’s brothel, is implicated in the slaying of a CIA agent who is found "minus a penis and a lot of blood." Chanya, "a basically decent and very tidy Thai, had placed his penis on the bedside table." But despite the best efforts of Jitpleecheep’s corrupt boss — he’s a part owner of the brothel and Chanya is a prime earner — the murder will not be put aside so neatly. Not in a post–September 11 world, where the CIA suspects terrorism everywhere. And so Jitpleecheep, whose feelings for Chanya may date back a few lifetimes, is once again dragged into the mess.

That mess involves both gender and skin. As in Bangkok 8, Burdett uses the Thai sex trade and his half-caste hero to explore the dark corners of both. As in that first book, men, women, and katoeys — transgendered individuals — seek their fates, and sex is everywhere. Seen through the eyes of our brothel-raised hero, it functions as currency, infatuating drug, power tool, and even as the means to reincarnation. So much, Jitpleecheep realizes, for surrendering desire.

More disturbing, at least to the reader, is the author’s fascination with skin. Flaying is not a pretty death, yet it occurs in both books. And the decorative power of skin, either in the sense of Chanya’s beauty or in the marvelous tattoos of the title, preoccupy more than one character.

These obsessions aside, for a farang author, Burdett does a marvelous job of realizing Jitpleecheep’s world. It’s a dark place, a starkly anti-romantic vision of a tourist destination that runs on pragmatism. "Please dump those childish notions you harbor about our working girls," says Jitpleecheep says in an early aside. "These are all country girls, tough as water buffalo, wild as swans, who can’t believe how much they can make" through prostitution. In its mix of grim reality and black comedy, his Bangkok recalls the West Africa of Robert Wilson’s Bruce Medway series. If you’re easily offended, the humor won’t work. But if you can stomach the violence, you’ll be reading about mutilations and rolling on the floor.

Of course, because Jitpleecheep and his late partner Pichai (who still makes appearances from time to time) spent a year in deep meditation, his worldly vision is layered with spiritual insights. It may not help for him to realize that a CIA operative has "extraterrestrial origins," but it can’t hurt to recognize a devout young Muslim as a former meditation buddy from 700 years ago ("I have to admit he’s kept his glow"). This fast-paced book is further layered with present-day subplots, including a young would-be katoey cop and a shipload of morphine coveted as both prize and evidence by army and police. It’s a complicated world, and even Jitpleecheep’s wry asides can explain only some of it to us.

In part, that’s because our hero’s world view has shifted since his debut. Yes, Bangkok Tattoo is wickedly sharp. But our one-time would-be arhat (saint) has lost some of his own glow. This time out, the asides are more frequent than the Buddhist revelations, the comments about the Thai sex trade and its Western customers a bit nastier. While Burdett weaves his tale masterfully around his dark issues of skin and sexuality, his twists and knots lack the perfection, the transcendent balance, that made Bangkok 8 breathtaking. Still, he pulls all his disparate threads together in time to earn some gasps and cheers as well as a kind of justice. Think of it as a dish that may need a bit more nam pla for seasoning. But beats most of what you get at home, doesn’t it, farang?

Issue Date: May 27 - June 2, 2005
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