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.  

Bangkok8Welcome to Bangkok – you are in for a rollercoaster ride of thrills, spills and emotional manipulation in the hands of a supremely confident writer, John Burdett.

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.

buddhasWhat 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.