Bangkok Eight by John Burdett
I can finally add to my Global Reading Challenge list, hosted by the ever-suave and encyclopedic Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.
Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a half-caste cop from Bangkok’s District 8 (hence the title). He and his childhood friend and partner, Pichai, are probably the only two cops not on the take in the city. In the opening scenes, they are following a US marine in his Mercedes E series, without quite knowing the reason for the close surveillance. When they finally catch up with the American, they discover he has been trapped in his car and bitten to death by a swarm of cobras and a drugged python. A few minutes later, Pichai too falls victim to one of the snakes. Sonchai is a devout Buddhist who may be intent on becoming an arhat (living saint), but only after he avenges the death of his soul-brother.
The American Embassy and the FBI get involved, of course, as does Sonchai’s corrupt but somehow likeable boss. It’s a complicated plot, exposing all of the unsavoury underbelly of the City of the Angels: prostitution, violence against women, drug smuggling, dubious jade trade and desperate poverty. And yet there is a lot of love and understanding for Thai culture here, albeit seen through the somewhat cynical eyes of an outsider, half-American and half-Thai, who never fits in completely with either culture.
What I most enjoyed about this was the singular, strong voice of the narrator. He makes you enter a largely unfamiliar world with such aplomb, that you are completely on his side. I cannot judge how accurate Burdett’s portrayal of Thailand is (I hope it is exaggerated), but while we have Sonchai’s compelling voice haranguing us farangs (foreigners), it is completely believable. And I can’t get enough of his wily mother Nong, a retired prostitute ready to open a go-go club for the Third Age.
Exotic and quite distressing in places, it is a book best read before and after some calmer, cosier pieces, but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it for the world.