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John Burdett
Bangkok Tattoo
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 1-400-04045-0
302 Pages; $24.00
Publication Date: 05-10-2005
Date Reviewed: 05-13-05

Index: Mystery  General Fiction  Science Fiction  Horror

John Burdett inverts sexuality, identity and even the mystery genre in his new novel 'Bangkok Tattoo'. This sequel to 'Bangkok 8' begins as Sonchai Jitpleecheep picks up the blood-soaked brassiere of Chanya, who has just brutally murdered an American tourist. First things first; a hefty bribe for the hotel receptionist, then a quick call to Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai's superior in the Bangkok Police force, who also happens to own The Old Man's Club, where Chanya was a dancer and a prostitute. Soon, Sonchai finds himself immersed in a mystery that is gripping, funny and shot through with trenchant wit.

Burdett's detective is one of the most delightful and original creations to grace recent crime fiction. His Bangkok police procedurals offer all the grit and a lot more wit than their western equivalents. They're sparkling, compulsively readable entertainments written from an alien perspective. Sonchai is a devout Buddhist who lives in a world that is populated by ghosts, demons and aliens as well as courtesans, criminals and cops. Burdett's cleverly conceived setup allows the narrator to provide a point of view that we just don’t see in American mystery fiction. Philosophy, religion, politics and personalities are seamlessly woven together. Sonchai tells the story in the first person, and his voice is a hoot from his first words on the first page to his final refusal to bring things to a tidy ending. He's smart and he's very, very funny.

But he's not alone in this novel. Burdett works his series characters well. Colonel Vikorn is especially fun. He's a combination of wile and self-involvement who goes from drunk and disorderly to cold and calculating with a mental agility that Burdett manages to make admirable. Sonchai's mother, Nong, once a prostitute, now part-owner of The Old Man's Club, is a hard-nosed business woman with a visionary imagination. The Old Man's Club is after all, her concept; a brothel whose aging clientele pop a Viagra, then make an appointment to show up when they're ready to go. Burdett plays these characters for laughs, but they're fascinating products of their exotic environment.

Bangkok and Thailand are the other major players here. The collision of an ancient society and cutting-edge technology allows fantastic and entertaining observations about the process of "westernization" as it is actually experienced by those being subjected to it. From call girls who use web sites to help buy their parents water buffaloes to Nong's Viagra powered brothel, the world's oldest profession shows itself to be uniquely adaptable. The food stalls, the perfumes, the clothes, the many religions that are a presence here are all rendered with precision and density. Burdett's characterizations of Thailand and Bangkok are complex observations of chaos that are not themselves chaotic. He makes you see, taste and smell a world that is overwhelming without overwhelming you. He's a highly skilled writer who conveys the details of a Byzantine society without calling attention to his own talent.

Burdett's plot in 'Bangkok Tattoo' is a cleverly-designed puzzle box that opens up to reveal plots within plots and schemes within schemes. Ultimately, he finds an opportunity to address the post 9/11 state of religion and politics. The Southern border of Thailand is a regular crossing for Muslim men who are seeking pleasures not available to them elsewhere, and it's a concern for our own CIA. Sonchai would like to keep things on a local level, but as ever, expediency will out. Burdett's novel offers some of the pleasures of a treatise on comparative religions as lived on the ground. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam jostle, push and shove up against one another in the hearts and minds of a people both primitive and futuristic. Commerce competes with concern for security, and security serves the needs of commerce. One hand shakes the other, one had washes the other and every hand has a partner ready to plunge a knife into the nearest back. No matter how lofty the talk, the action is always the result of personality clashes being played out at a very local level.

For all the politics and religion and personality covered here, one of the things you don’t expect in a novel about a prostitute accused of murder in a third-world county is genuine, generous laugh-out-loud humor. But Burdett's book is very funny. His droll inversion of police procedure -- decide who did it, write the statement, trash the evidence -- will delight readers who may have seen a few too many forensics grace the pages of recent thrillers. And though the novel is set in the international sex industry, Burdett handles this subject with perfect combination of distance and objectivity. He doesn't exactly hide matters, but he doesn't rub the reader's face in them either. The matter-of-fact attitude displayed by his characters is the source of many entertaining riffs on the Buddhist outlook on Western morality. It's fascinating as well as humorous.

'Bangkok Tattoo' shows Burdett as a writer totally at ease with his subject matter, his style, his characters and his concerns. Sonchai Jitpleecheep, Nong, Colonel Vikorn and every other character are real people that readers will want to spend time with, no matter what activity they are engaged in. Of course, with Burdett's vision of Bangkok, Thailand and the world at large, you can be assured that those activities will lead to entertainment as well as enlightenment. Craft and commerce, sex and violence, religion and politics -- Burdett's novel is a literary version of the city within which it is set. It's easier to visit, but harder to leave behind.

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