The Buddha taught that karma is the cosmic law by which every cause has an effect, and all our actions have consequences that can last many lifetimes. Acceptance of karma can help one to understand why some people are born with disabilities while others are given prodigal talent (and, sometimes, both at once). Karma invokes the concept of individual responsibility for past and present actions, and it is a major theme in John Burdett's exotic mystery thriller Bangkok 8.
The novel takes place in Krung Thep, which means "City of Angels," though, says protagonist Sonchai Jitpleecheep, "we are happy to call it Bangkok if it helps to separate a farang from his money" (p. 7). The city becomes its own character; Burdett's wonderfully evocative prose depicts Bangkok's confluence between the old world and the new. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion in the city, but it exists side by side with one of the most famous sex trades in the world. Corruption is rampant within the city's police force, but officers who are paid protection bribes are efficient in their jobs and give back to the community. Internet cafés crowd for space next to impoverished concrete government housing projects.
In this world of sex and corruption, Sonchai himself is a bit of an anomaly. The son of a retired prostitute and an unnamed American GI, he works as a police detective in Bangkok's District 8, a neighborhood he describes as the city's "heart and its armpit" (p. 61), in order to work off some of his own bad karma, generated when he and his police partner and soul-brother Pichai killed a drug dealer when they were younger. After a forced retreat in a Buddhist monastery, in which the abbot taught them the Eightfold Path and broke down their wills—transforming them into arhat, Buddhist saints—they were sent to work in District 8, run by the abbot's younger brother, the wealthy and influential Colonel Vikorn. As arhat, they are not allowed to participate in the corrupt capitalist transactions of their colleagues, and as such, they are the only officers not on the take in the entire district.
Sonchai has an uneasy relationship with his devout Buddhism. He believes sincerely in the values of compassion and impermanence (evidenced by the squalid hovel in which he lives), but after Pichai dies from a particularly nasty snake bite at the beginning of the book, he accepts as a matter of course that he will avenge his soul-brother's death. He believes in enlightenment, but is not averse to using marijuana or yaa baa (i.e., methamphetamines) in order to get there. He accepts the massive regulated sex trade of the city, but because his mother was a whore, he refuses to lay down with them himself. Sonchai is a microcosm of Bangkok itself, constantly split between its strong Buddhist tradition and its equally strong ties to Western capitalism.
At first glance, the novel contains all the familiar tropes of a detective story: a partner killed and the promise of vengeance, the main character's knowledge of both low and high culture that gives him access to vital information, the introduction of a new partner and possible sexual interest, a vast conspiracy involving the jade trade that leads to a white businessman who holds equally vast power, snappy dialogue full of info-dumps, all set in the seedy underbelly of an exotic and thriving big city. However, Burdett's evocation of the story through Sonchai's unique and wry perspective lends a freshness to the proceedings, and the blistering pace results in a breathless experience in which it is nearly impossible to put the book down.
The cast of eclectic characters is also a compelling demonstration of the incredible diversity of Thailand, and of Bangkok in particular. Sonchai's mother Nong has long retired from the bar scene, and after taking an online business course run by the Wall Street Journal, she decides to establish a brothel catering to elderly Western men with access to Viagra. Kimberley Jones is the FBI agent assigned to assist Sonchai in his investigation, and she soon falls for the exoticism of the city and for Sonchai himself. Andreev Iamskoy is a pimp with a PhD in physics, who surrounds himself with highly-educated Siberian prostitutes and piles of thick Russian novels. Fatima is a half-black Thai at the center of the entire conspiracy, phenomenally gorgeous and guarded by two former Khmer Rouge with Uzis. And the prostitutes working in Bangkok's many bars are crazy for football, cheering on David Beckham as they service their clients.
Besides the exotic locale and extraordinary characterization, Burdett does a wonderful job showing the everyday coexistence of the fantastic with Bangkok's citizens. After a particularly rough night, Sonchai awakens in a go-go club to find a ghost gnawing at his feet:
It is male, about nine feet tall with the round shape of a tic, tiny feet and legs. His mouth is the size of the eye of a needle, just as the tales stipulate. [ . . . ] He is the spirit of one who was greedy and selfish in his lifetime and must spend a thousand years with that tiny mouth which can never take in enough food for that huge body. [ . . . ] We all believe in them, by the way, even those who would deny it to foreigners. To many people, especially in the country, the undead are a serious pest. (p. 75)
Also, thanks to his deep connection to Buddhism, and to the belief in karmic reincarnation, Sonchai can occasionally catch glimpses of a person's previous lives just by looking at them. For example, Elijah, big brother of an American marine whose murder by snakes sets off the entire story, is "the reincarnation of a southern planter who treated his slaves well but was unable to transcend the racism of his times. He spent two incarnations as an African American, neither of them illustrious. Deep resentment toward the system carried over from those lifetimes and drove him to crime in this one. These perceptions came to me while he was cramming some stuffed potato skins into his mouth at a diner off Sukhumvit" (p. 150).
Bangkok 8 is a thrill ride through a wonderfully described city, from a perspective that may be unusual for many Western readers. Burdett's first career as a British lawyer working in Hong Kong opened up a love for the different cultures of Southeast Asia, and this love shines through on the page. Bangkok emerges as one of the liveliest and most interesting cities that I have read about in recent memory, a place of vast contradictions, with a profoundly rich culture. The novel's setting is one that you will be sad to leave upon turning over the last page (although Burdett has written a sequel, Bangkok Tattoo), but like the best overseas destinations, it is one worth coming back to, again and again.
Jason Erik Lundberg's work has appeared in over two dozen venues, including The Third Alternative, Fantastic Metropolis, Infinity Plus, and Electric Velocipede. His short fiction has been nominated for the Fountain Award and honorably mentioned in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. With Janet Chui, he runs Two Cranes Press. He maintains a website and blog at jasonlundberg.net, and produces a literary podcast called Lies and Little Deaths: A Virtual Anthology.
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