I picked up Bangkok Haunts at Goodwill for a buck because I’m trying to digest a wide variety of crime fiction to fill the mental coffers. It’s apparently the third book Burdett has written starring devout Buddhist Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the only cop on the Royal Thai Police force who won’t take bribes: a thing like that’s bad karma, ain’t it? To be honest all I had to do was read the opening paragraph on the back flap and I was sold–cops & crime in the Third World, good press from the NY Times & Bookslut, and Buddhism? What more could I want?
The story starts dark and gets blacker as we go. Sonchai is anonymously sent a snuff movie starring his former lover, the magnetic and brilliant prostitute Damrong. Despite his fidelity to his pregnant wife the detective finds himself becoming obsessed with the circumstances surrounding Damrong’s death. Who made the video? Why would Damrong involve herself? And who is the quiet monk who seems to be leading him to suspects? As the mystery deepens he finds that the web of intrigue involved is larger and more sinister than he could have imagined as he is set against some of the most powerful business interests in all of Thailand.
Given the caveat that this is the only Burdett book I’ve ever read, the man doesn’t seem much of a stylist. His prose is workmanlike and his metaphors generally unremarkable, though at one point regarding reincarnation Sonchai impressively remarks “We are tiny figurines hanging from the charm bracelet of infinity.” Elsewhere, though, he writes “When Superman morphs into Godot, you can be sure you have reached a deeper, more nuanced level of the American initiation: ask the Iraqis.” This is a fun sentence, but it’s not used in the service of anything interesting, and that’s endemic of lots of the book.
There’s an impressive intelligence at work in this cop, and there’s no question that Burdett makes you believe you’re in Thailand as you’re reading. The man knows his territory, and he establishes a feel for the country brilliantly, but the baroque plotting and anti-Iraq War polemic intrusions (sympathetic to them as I am) got tiresome. Additionally, while the supernatural stuff–visits from Damrong’s ghost etc—works really fascinatingly well as metaphor early in the book, the ending was far too magical for my taste. Not that I mind elements of fantasy in my fiction, but given the world I thought we were operating in throughout it was just a touch too far for my palate.
I probably won’t read another Burdett book. It gave me a useful sense of how to establish exotic settings and how to incorporate modern technology into serious writing–there are lots of text messages sent and received in the novel–but I was more than a little starved for something writerly (and unmagical) by the end. I started Denis Johnson’s The Stars at Noon last night and was almost immediately sated: the third page includes the sentence “in truth his features were unshaped, they seemed to be materializing out of a bright fog, nothing more than a shining blank with shadows floating on it.”
As one of my mentors Dr. Blair might have put it: I have no idea what that means, but it’s marvelous!