One of the most important precepts in Buddhism is compassion, manifested as readiness to give comfort, sympathy, and concern. This is exemplified in Metta Bhavana, the cultivation of loving-kindness, practiced by Buddhists all over the world, including sex workers in Thailand. These women, transsexuals (called katoeys), and men provide a service that briefly relieves a source of suffering, and in return receive both money and the knowledge that they have given comfort and sympathy to another human being. Prostitution itself is not Right Employment in the eyes of the Buddha, but a whore has the rest of her life after retirement (usually in her late twenties) to rectify any bad karma produced in her early profession. This is a controversial idea to be sure, especially to the Western mind.
It’s an issue that infuses the worldview of John Burdett’s Bangkok Tattoo. The sequel to Bangkok 8 (previously reviewed here) once again takes place in Krung Thep, otherwise known to farangs as Bangkok, and is narrated by arhat (i.e., Buddhist saint, a person who has attained liberation and is thus free from cyclic existence) police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. It has been a year since the events of the previous novel, and the Old Man’s Club—started by Sonchai’s mother, Nong, and his police colonel, Vikorn, to cater to wealthy older Western men with access to Viagra—has had to rethink its business model. The promise of “satisfaction guaranteed” has led to an unexpected outcome:
You’re only supposed to take half a Viagra to enhance performance, but would they listen? The hell they would. Some popped as many as three or four. [. . .] Now what was wrong with that? I’ll tell you. Gentlemen, take a whole Viagra (or more), and you kiss your natural flaccidity goodbye for eight hours or longer. [. . .] They wore the girls out, who started to leave in droves. My mother had promised full satisfaction and she hated to disappoint, which left us with no recourse but a relay system. One horny old codger could get through five or six healthy young women before the drug started to fade and he allowed himself to be carried back to his hotel in a condition best described as ecstatic catatonia (or rapturous rigor mortis). Profit margins shrank to paper-thin. (13)
Enter Chanya, beautiful even by Thai standards, who has a presence more akin to a diplomat’s than to a whore’s, as well as a mysterious past during which she spent some years in America. After the business dwindles due to the annulment of the “satisfaction guaranteed” policy, Chanya is the salvation of the Old Man’s Club, and she begins to bring back a steady supply of customers. But when one of those customers is killed at a nearby hotel, apparently by Chanya’s hand, the club and the District 8 police force go into overdrive to cover up the death. Further complicating the matter is the profession of the dead john: American CIA agent.
The self-defense plea (dictated by Colonel Vikorn and later signed by Chanya) is soon made null by the dead man’s CIA pals. And so the murder (including castration, disembowelment, and a flayed back) is blamed on Islamic extremists from southern Thailand near the Malaysian border, where the agent, named Mitch Turner, had been stationed to monitor jihadist activity. But Sonchai knows that this explanation is also too easy, a notion further supported in a clandestine meeting with a well-respected imam, and so he travels to Songai Kolok to investigate. His findings lead him into the brutal feud between his police colonel and Army General Zinna; the Washington, DC, world of prostitution and politics; a stammering Japanese tattooist on the run from the yakuza; and a group of Muslim clerics determined to avoid a war because of their easily targeted religion.
Once again, Burdett’s prose sizzles with les mots justes—“Ay is in a bikini and high heels, revealing the silver insert in her navel at the center of her flat brown stomach, not to mention the leaping swordfish whose sword peaks just above her panty line” (39)—and a fast pace. Some of the sense of wonder of the exotic setting has worn away (a problem with any sequel), but in return we are exposed to the wider geography of Thailand’s countryside. Many of the same characters are back, although a few (such as FBI agent Kimberley Jones and the half-black katoey Fatima) are relegated to such bit parts that they easily could have been lifted out without much damage to the plot. The same goes for the email contact made with Sonchai’s long-lost father, who never actually makes an appearance in the book. Despite this, his son spends an inordinate amount of time thinking about him, and this preoccupation seems almost a distraction in the face of the more exciting narrative.
While the primary narrative engages the reader just as much as its predecessor, it often takes long digressions to backfill the story. Large chunks of the book completely halt any forward motion in order to reveal aspects of Chanya’s past, from her time in America to her visitation of Mitch Turner at his hotel room in Songai Kolok. Since Chanya is not the narrator, Burdett faces a challenge in relating important information about her relationship with the dead CIA agent without an infodump, and it could have been done in a less clunky manner: chapter 26 is presented as an extended account of the events in Chanya’s diary.
Also, perhaps because we’re no longer new to the unusual setting, it seems as if Burdett feels forced to ramp up the gore to provide some fresh entertainment, with increasing numbers of brutal and horrific killings occurring as the investigation progresses. To be sure, vengeful army generals and crazed yakuza thugs are dangerous folk, but the sadistic nature of the crimes committed is almost enough to turn a reader off his or her food; this reviewer will certainly not think the same way about eels again. Sonchai himself does not seem as saintly as before, from lustful images of Chanya invading his everyday thoughts, through a willingness to aid in a police cover-up, to his role as a sometime papasan in his mother’s brothel. It goes against his arhat training and is a telling detail in his character development.
Sonchai also talks much more directly to the reader in this novel, as if relaying the narrative while serving drinks in the Old Man’s Club. The commentary almost intrudes too much into the story proper, although his insights are almost always educational. He assumes farangs will be ignorant of his homeland and religion, and his explanations are clear enough for the most befuddled foreigner:
Rebirth, farang (in case you’re wondering): You are lounging on a magnificent balcony open to the starry sky, divine music is playing with such exquisite perfection you can hardly stand it, when all of a sudden something terrible occurs: the magical sounds break up into an obscene cacophony. What is happening? Are you dying? You could put it that way. That awful noise is the first scream of an infant: you. You have been born into a human body hardwired with each and every transgression from the last time around, and now you must spend the next seventy years clawing your way back to the music. No wonder we cry. (85)
Despite my objections, Bangkok Tattoo is still a compelling thriller, full of interesting characters of every stripe. Sonchai’s discovery of his romantic feelings for Chanya is almost sweet in its awkwardness and is complicated by her mysterious role in Mitch Turner’s death. The lengths that Nong goes to in order to appease the Buddha are almost comical in their excess, such as her offering of five hogs’ heads, a thousand boiled eggs, and copious garlands of marigolds and lotus. And the revelations about the practical side of Buddhism, such as the sublimation of sexual desire—“Stoke up that fire, build it into an intolerable heat, a boiling cauldron of unendurable intensity, then let it take you up through the chakras all the way to the thousand-petaled lotus in the head” (217)—are enlightening for any farang reader. The novel may not have the freshness of a first date, but it continues a fulfilling and exciting relationship with the reader, and one hopes that Sonchai will be back again someday to tell us about further adventures in his vibrant city.
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. You can see his previous appearances in Strange Horizons in our archive.