Bangkok 8 by John Burdett
– published in 2003, the first of five books featuring the half Thai, half white, moody Buddhist sleuth, Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep.
After last post’s unsuccessful ‘testing’ of a potential new moody sleuth, I decided to return to the tried-and-true, take another look at one of my favourites, this time, my favourite South East Asian detective.
So, who is Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep?
Some background: In the Power of Difference – Bangkok 8 John Burdett explains how he’d visited Thailand many times before deciding to write a Bangkok thriller. With no particular interest in Bangkok’s famous sex industry or the young women who worked in it, nor any particular interest in Thai Buddhism, he merely thought he’d found in Bangkok an exotic location that hadn’t been ‘done to death’ in genre fiction.
As part of his research, Burdett took a two-week meditation course in Theravada Buddhism at a Thai monastery, along the way discovering that memory of past lives used to be quite commonplace in Thailand, as is a belief in ghosts.
In Burdett’s own words, Sonchai arrived unannounced… “one fine morning, about a year after my arrival, I found myself writing a story narrated in the first person by a Thai cop who was half western by blood, who was a passionate meditator, whose mother was a whore and who had grown up amongst those very young women and katoeys (transsexuals) with whom I spent my evenings chatting. I didn’t need to think about “voice,” it was there every morning, nagging, persistent and quite indifferent to all those rules about novel writing I had so conscientiously studied.”
Despite it being the first in the series, John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 gives us Sonchai as a remarkably complex and well-developed character. His voice is strong and compelling, insightful and often bemused, particularly when observing the differences between Western and Thai beliefs and attitudes.
I’m on my way to explaining why John Burdett’s Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep made it to the upper extremes of my “most excellent” moody sleuth list, but first a brief overview of the plot, excellently synopsized in a review by Asia Times writer Lin Neumann
“The story unfolds through the eyes of Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a devoted Buddhist who, along with his partner, is the last honest man on the Bangkok police force. The pair are ordered to track a suspicious American marine who is soon murdered in a locked car by a clutch of maddened cobras and a python. Sonchai’s partner coincidentally catches a snake bite to the eye, and the detective vows revenge for the murder of his brother policeman. The seemingly impossible crime is only the beginning of a suitably sinister plot that twists through Bangkok’s many vices, leading the reader to meet police colonels on the take, Russian hookers, speed-crazed slum dwellers and elegant massage ladies. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) gets in on the act, as a young female agent tries in vain to bed Detective Sonchai while searching for a dangerously kinky American jade merchant with a possible connection to the slain marine.”
Neumann goes on to explain that what makes this rather bizarre plot “if not believable, at least plausible is Burdett’s gift for getting inside the head of his Thai characters, especially Sonchai.”
And Sonchai’s first person narrative of Bangkok 8 gets us inside his head right quick. One of the first things that attracted me to him was his wry humour, perhaps not a trait I’d note on my “moody sleuth” requirements list, but in Sonchai’s case it’s something of a leavening agent throughout the book.
Sonchai’s Buddhism plays a large part in who he is: on page one of Bangkok 8, as Sonchai and his partner Pichai tail their assigned quarry, an ill-fated American marine, Pichai slumbers in the passenger seat, and Sonchai comments that “Survey after survey has shown sleep to be my people’s favorite hobby.” He refers to Pichai as his “soul brother and partner in indolence,” noting that he might not be sleeping… “perhaps he is meditating. He is one of those who have had enough of the world. His disgust has driven him to be ordained and he has named me as the one who, along with his mother, will shave his head and eyebrows, which honor will permit us to fly to one of the Buddha heavens by clinging to his saffron robes at the moment of death. You see how entrenched is cronyism in our ancient culture.”
Sonchai soon assumes one of the requirements of a moody sleuth: grief. His ‘soul brother’ Pichai does not live to be ordained as a priest; he dies of snake bite while trying to save the marine they are following. In Pichai’s last moments, Sonchai recognizes that Pichai “has vowed to erase the appalling karma which must follow his murder of the yaa baa dealer by becoming a Buddhist saint, anarhat, in this lifetime. An arhat does not hesitate to lay down his life when duty so requires. An arhat masters fear.”
Chapter 4 is a one paragraph explanation for how they came to be Bangkok cops. It also gives some insight into their Buddhist beliefs.
“After we murdered the yaa baa dealer our mothers secured us an interview with the abbot of a forest monastery in the far north, who told us we were the lowest form of life in the ten thousand universes. Pichai had thrust the broken bottle into the jugular of humanity, and therefore of the Buddha himself, while I giggled. After six months of mosquitoes and meditation, remorse had gouged our hearts. Six months after that the abbot told us we were going to mend our karma by becoming cops. His youngest brother was a police colonel named Vikorn, chief of District 8. Corruption was forbidden to us, however. If we wanted to escape the murderer’s hell we would have to be honest cops. More, we would have to be arhat cops. The abbot is undoubtedly an arhat himself, a fully realized man who voluntarily pauses on the shore of nirvana, postponing his total release in order to teach his wisdom to wretches like us. He knows everything. Pichai is with him now, while I am stranded here in the pollution called life on earth. I must try harder with my meditation.”
Sonchai is overwhelmed by grief, at one point commenting “The dharma teaches us the impermanence of all phenomena, but you cannot prepare yourself for the loss of the phenomenon you love more than yourself.”
But he has little time to grieve; called to the American Embassy to be debriefed by FBI personnel, he takes a motorbike taxi to the rendezvous. One comment is telling: “I enjoy the ride because I’m sure the kid is on some drug or other—if not yaa baa, then ganja—and on quite a few occasions I am certain I am about to die and join Pichai sooner than expected. It is with disappointment and some surprise that I see the white walls of the American embassy as we turn off Phloen Chit, and find myself still in the prison of the body.”
At the embassy, Sonchai and the FBI talk about him investigating the marine’s murder. In response to the FBI’s concerns re Washington possibly not wanting too deep an investigation, Sonchai responds “Detective Pichai Apiradee was my soul brother.” This information apparently does not answer Rosen’s question. He [sic] tries again. “I’m going to kill whoever did it. There won’t be a trial.”
Sonchai’s vow to avenge Pichai’s death is reiterated when he returns to Bangkok 8 police station:
“My colleagues look away when I enter the station. Every man has ordained as a monk for at least three months of his life, meaning that every man has seriously contemplated the inevitability of his own death, the corruption of the body, the worms, the disintegration, the meaninglessness of everything except the Way of the Buddha. We do not look on death the way you do, farang. My closest colleagues grasp my arm and one or two embrace me. No one says sorry. Would you be sorry about a sunset? No one doubts that I have sworn to avenge Pichai’s death. There are limits to Buddhism when honor is at stake.”
But in Bangkok so many things are not what they seem, and guilt or innocence are not so easily judged with any certainty. If you haven’t already, read the book. It’s a fast paced, fresh take on the mystery thriller, and a great intro to a fascinating moody sleuth.
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Sonchai’s grief and his Buddhism are central to his character in Bangkok 8, the first in John Burdett’s Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep series. Next post I intend to look more closely at Sonchai’s Buddhist nature and explore his character more fully in the next in the series, Bangkok Tattoo.