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Bangkok 8

John Burdett

Alfred A. Knopf / Random House

US Hardcover First

ISBN 1-400-04044-2

Publication Date: 06-03-2003

336 Pages; $24.00

Date Reviewed: 09-22-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Mystery, General Fiction, Science Fiction, Horror


"This isn't a whodunit, is it?" narrator Sonchai Jitpleecheep asks the reader nearly two-thirds of the way through John Burdett's fine novel 'Bangkok 8'. In fact, Burdett's story of an exotic milieu and an alien worldview has much in common with 'Blade Runner', the filmed version of Philip K. Dick's 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' As in many science fiction novels, the reader is plunged without preparation into a culture that is thoroughly unfamiliar. The narrator tells the story from a perspective that is distinctly alien to most who will read the novel, that of a devout Buddhist. Sonchai's first person narration will culture-shock the reader throughout the narrative. Though it's set in the Thailand in the present day, we've seen many a science fiction world that seems more familiar than the real world as viewed by Sonchai Jipleecheep. 'Bangkok 8' isn't concerned so much with who did what and why, but rather how such a radically alien worldview could exist so comfortably alongside our world of unbridled capitalistic materialism.

Sonchai and Pichai, his cop-partner and Buddhist soul-mate, are the first on-scene when a US Marine Sergeant is killed in the back seat of a Mercedes by snakes on speed. They are the only two honest cops in Bangkok District 8. Unlike all others, they refuse to take bribes; they are arhat cops, saints in training. Corruption is the default in Bangkok, and it makes the police department run rather smoothly and well. Sonchai and Pichai are outcasts, and problems tolerable only because their other skills compensate for their honesty. When they open the car door to find a scene of reptilian horror, Pichai is killed, and Sonchai vows to kill the person responsible for Pichai's death. To do so, he will have to solve a case that seems unsolvable.

Sonchai's first-person narration, as rendered by Burdett, is remarkably readable and highly enjoyable. Burdett utterly succeeds in capturing the peculiar worldview of his Buddhist protagonist, the son of a Bangkok whore and an unknown, unnamed American soldier. Sonchai's story is fluid, lyrical, and surreal to the average western reader. 'Bangkok 8' is more a novel of magic realism than many that claim the genre. Sonchai lives in a spiritual world. Ghosts, disembodied souls, and other phenomena we would consider supernatural are matter-of-fact parts of his everyday experience. Here's where Burdett really shines. His prose is fluid and poetic. He conveys the extremities of life in Thailand as easily as he conveys the immanency of the spiritual world. Reality is subtly shifted from the first sentence on the first page the final satisfying, striking image of the novel.

As a genre mystery, 'Bangkok 8' occasionally gets a little flat-footed. There are a couple too many conversations where Sonchai receives information in a helpful monologue from one of the many memorable characters who cross the pages. Surprisingly enough, this does not detract significantly from the suspense. Instead these come across as what science fiction readers have termed "info-dumps". The tension here is created not by what we know. As far as the way Sonchai sees things, we know nothing. He exists in a very different world from ours, and as readers, it's a pure pleasure even to just to sit and listen as Sonchai listens. The tension in the novel is created instead by the joy of exploring this very odd world; not that of the Bangkok policeman, but rather, that of the devout Buddhist who carries what essentially an ordinary western job. The collision of what we think we know about our world with what Sonchai knows proves to be the driving force of the novel.

Readers will be pleasantly surprised to find that a novel that deals with a world based exclusively in sex need not be filled with explicit sex. Burdett demonstrates an ability to steep the reader in this world without making it seem like an off-putting episode of 'Operation'. There's really no 'Yikes!' factor here. However, lots of explicitly sexual material is covered -- in a chaste, Buddhist fashion --but nonetheless, those who are easily offended by such goings-on might want to think twice before visiting Burdett's exotic world. Burdett manages this by focusing on the characters and their nonchalant, non-western responses to the world of erotica in which they live. Between the Buddhist mindset and Burdett's prose, 'Bangkok 8' manages to create a vivid world without unpleasant close-ups.

'Bangkok 8' is in the end not a mystery, and it's a stronger novel for its willingness to slip through genre boundaries. Burdett is a talented writer whose focus on an alien worldview that co-exists with ours results in a wonderful, gripping novel of cultural displacement. Science fiction readers will find a lot to love here, perhaps more than the mystery fans. As long as the generalities of the Asian sex trade don't send you into a tizzy, just about any reader will find Sonchai Jitpleecheep a genial, joyous companion. 'Bangkok 8' is a thoughtfully written piece of fiction that evades any description beyond compelling and beautiful.