"Even emotional anguish is another misleading phenomenon," Sonchai
Jitpleecheep tells us in John Burdett's latest novel, 'Bangkok Haunts'.
Alas, that level of awareness is beyond Sonchai himself, and he could
use some extra equipoise. Burdett, on the other hand, seems to have found
his own version of that high state of being, at least when it comes to
writing his strikingly original novels set in Bangkok. Voice carries
all in fiction. Every book is a one-sided conversation, and the author
who expects us to pay attention had best have a captivating means of
expression. For John Burdett, that happens when he channels Sonchai Jitpleecheep,
a devout Buddhist and Royal Thai Police detective. It pretty much does
not matter what Sonchai says; his language is engaging, funny, intelligent
and animated by a penetrating intelligence. But in creating his character,
Burdett has managed to immerse himself and his readers in a world that
is alien, foreign, familiar and compelling. Sonchai's vision of the world
around him guarantees that the story will be as involving as the voice
that tells it.
Sonchai starts the novel facing both his past and our uncertain future. "Few
crimes make us fear for the evolution of our species. I am watching one
right now." It's a snuff film, beautifully photographed, starring
Damrong, a well-known, high-flying prostitute who once worked for Sonchai
at The Old Man's Club, the bar and brothel he helps his mother run when
he's not solving crimes. Damrong was not just a former employee. She
was his lover, a woman who seemed to control his soul. It was the kind
of relationship that often ends in suicide or murder, and Sonchai has
never really left it behind. Nor will he be able to now that she's dead,
since her ghost returns with sexual demands that she be avenged.
'Bangkok Haunts' is Burdett's best novel in the series. It's funnier
and weirder, more imbued with ghosts than the previous works, which were
both quite funny and included far more ghosts than the average noir thriller.
But don’t let all this talk of ghosts lead you to believe that
Burdett is writing anything that remotely resembles familiar supernatural
horror. Burdett's novel is written from the perspective of a practicing
Buddhist, who feels that ghosts are a part of everyday life. This is
the most natural supernatural novel you'll ever read.
The plot in 'Bangkok Haunts' revolves around the big business of international
pornography. He even includes an appendix in the form of a New York Times
article that talks about how the biggest distributors of pornography
are GM and Marriot Hotels. As Sonchai and Kimberley, the "hormone
haunted manhunter" who has since become sadder and wiser, track
the origin of the movie, Sonchai's superior in the Royal Thai Police
force decides to enter the biz himself. Burdett has a delightful time
upending just about every mystery trope and tradition you can imagine
in 'Bangkok Haunts'. The cops are robbers and the forensic bombshells
involve ghosts. Mystery fans who like their locations exotic and their
action unusual will find great satisfaction.
Both ghosts and humor play a bigger role than in the previous Sonchai
Jitpleecheep novels. The humor often spins from the language that Burdett
gets out of his Buddhist protagonist. Sonchai's vision of the world is
a matter-of-fact inversion of Western views, and the results are consistently
hilarious, even if they’re often simultaneously quite grotesque.
At one point, Sonchai's pregnant girlfriend, Chanya, offers to watch
the horrific video with him because she knows that it will upset him,
but he asks her not to and she acquiesces. "Neither of us wants
an argument, and Chanya has grown too used to serenity to squander it
on something trivial like a snuff movie."
Interestingly enough, for a book filled with wall-to-wall sex, described
in detail, the book manages to avoid both titillation and grossness.
This is all down to Sonchai's voice, the perspective that Burdett brings
to bear on the situations. It's refreshingly honest and gives the book
a vital texture. You'll never feel as if you're suffering through an
obligatory "romantic" sex scene in one of Burdett's novels.
'Bangkok Haunts' is a thriller propelled not only by a series of mysterious
events, natural and supernatural, but mostly by a voice that you simply
want to hear. As Sonchai dives in the circumstances that brought the
movie into being, the reader becomes equally invested in the outcome.
Burdett manages a denouement that lives up to all the trails he's been
traveling, both in this world and the next. There's a particularly vivid
and terrifying climax to this novel that will remain in mind long after
you close the covers. Fortunately, the best humor and Burdett's serene
Buddhist point of view also stay close. You will indeed be haunted. .