Bangkok 8


John Burdett


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

December 23, 2009

t the beginning of this novel, John Burdett felt it was necessary to write an apology to Thailand, to assure the readers that the picture he paints of that country is merely a work of fiction, that Thailand is actually much nicer than depicted in his novel. Then you read the novel, and find a convincing portrait of corruption, drug use, violence, prostitution and poverty. Yet at the end of the book we get a mini-sermon about how the West is so uptight about sex. People travel to Thailand so they can freely indulge their natural urges, which is much better than our repressed Western society (well not exactly freely in Thailand, because you have to pay the prostitutes). It doesn't seem like a fair exchange to me - I'd rather live in the repressed West than in a nation where every policeman is paid off, gangsters control every district, and the only viable industries are sex, drugs and alcohol. If the Thais are so unabashed about sex, how come they are all using prostitutes too? (Burdett tells us that majority of the johns are not foreigners.)

The story begins with two Thai police detectives assigned to track a US marine sergeant through Bangkok. Despite their tail, the marine's car eludes them in the heavy traffic. By the time that they catch up to the sergeant's vehicle, they come upon a horrific scene - the marine is sitting dead in the driver's seat, with a giant python coiled around his neck trying to swallow his head. The detectives shoot the snake and open the door, only to find that a horde of spitting cobras is coiled inside the marine's shirt. One of these angry snakes bites the first detective, and kills him. The remaining detective, Detective Jitplecheep, kills the snakes and vows to avenge the death of his murdered partner.

Thus begins our tour through Bangkok's corrupt city. We learn about the jade trade, we learn about drug trafficking, we get an insider account of the girls who work in the sex trade (Jitplecheep's mother worked as a whore, and she refuses to tell him who his father was, though it seems clear he was as an American service man during the Vietnam War.) Because the marine who was murdered by the snakes is American, the FBI becomes involved, and we get an east vs west clash when Jitplecheep's Hindu philosophy meets the practical Western thought of FBI agent Kimberly Jones - who naturally finds her mores loosening up after "enlightening" tours inside some of the brothels: "All those girls seems so happy"!

Things get even more over the top - we get knife-wielding Khmer Rouge assassins riding motorcycles, beautiful PhD Russian women who drink vodka and work the flesh trade because they want money to gamble, plus we get a detailed look at sex change operations done by the much practiced plastic surgeons of Thailand. There are well-connected corrupt Americans, plus we learn that the CIA was responsible for the heroin plague of the sixties. It is hard to take a lot of this seriously, it seems to be a plot constructed for a Jerry Bruckheimer film - lots of action and skin, but not much that makes a lot of sense when you stop to think about what is going on.

Overall, this is an interesting novel, the pages turn quickly - how will Jitplecheep avenge his fallen partner? How do you get a bunch of snakes to attack a man driving a car? Unfortunately, the conclusion to all these plot threads isn't that great. But it is interesting book for most of the way, though I don't think I am interested enough to pick up the sequels.