The gist of the plot line in Bangkok Tattoo is this: Sonchai is called upon to investigate the murder of an unlucky john found disemboweled, castrated and partially flayed, apparently ‘done in’ by the lovely bar girl, Chanya, with whom Sonchai just might be in love.
Chanya, the prime suspect, is in an opium delirium after the murder, and unable to answer any questions, and since she also happens to be the top earner at the brothel co-owned by Sonchai’s mother and his boss, Colonel Vikorn, Vikorn decides to protect their interests by dictating Chanya’s statement himself, with Sonchai transcribing.
As the colonel concludes his dictation and Sonchai inks the near comatose Chanya’s thumb in order to imprint her statement, Vikorn asks:
“Anything I’ve left out?”
“No,” I say in awe. The statement is a masterly mosaic of several standard stories from the Game, artfully interwoven with great economy of language. Still more remarkable in a cop who carries his legal scholarship so lightly, he has laid the foundations for an impregnable defense to a charge of murder or even manslaughter: she used only such force as was necessary to save her life and did not deliver the fatal blow; when she saw how badly he was wounded, she attempted without success to save his life; and she expressed sorrow and respect by her sensitive placing of his severed member in a position of honor. The dead farang’s standard-issue hatred of the opposite sex arising from bitter personal experience of his own countrywomen provides a motive for his aggression and his sexual preferences. “I think you’ve covered everything.”
But when C.I.A. agents arrive looking for their missing operative, the murder investigation and attempted cover-up get far more complicated than anyone could have anticipated. Sonchai finds himself embroiled in a case that eventually involves not only American operatives only too willing to exploit post-9/11 paranoia, but Muslim fundamentalists in southern Thailand, Colonel Vikorn’s despised rival, Thai army general Zinna, Yakuza gangsters, Chinese diplomats, and a Japanese tattoo artist.
But that’s enough about the story; we’re here to talk about Sonchai Jitpleecheep and the traits that earned him a place in the roster of moody sleuths.
Last Tuesday, in lieu of a full post, I listed eleven relevant qualities; the eighth referring to Sonchai’s sincere attempt to abide by the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, in this instance, ‘right livelihood.’
In the first book of the series, Bangkok 8, when Sonchai’s mother opens her new brothel, The Old Man’s Club, our Buddhist detective is coerced into accepting part ownership. His boss, police chief Colonel Vikorn, the club’s major shareholder, tells him…
“… your mother and I are giving you ten percent of the shares in the business. She wants you in as a family member, and I can see the advantage of not having you passing heavy judgments on us when you go through one of your devout phases.”
“I’m afraid I cannot accept. Making money out of women in that way is expressly forbidden by the Buddha.”
“So is smoking dope. Anyway, I’m ordering you. Disobeying a superior is also proscribed from the Eightfold Path.”
Sonchai reluctantly accepts, and in the second book, Bangkok Tattoo, appears to have settled in as a papa-san at the Old Man’s Club:
“…despite the serious religious misgivings I have about working in the trade and making money out of women in a way that is expressly forbidden by the Buddha. Sometimes our sins are a compulsion of karma: the Buddha rubs our face in it until we are so sick of our error, we would rather die than go that way again. (But if that is the case, why do I feel so good? Why is the whole street in a festive mood? Did the rules change? Is monogamy an experiment that failed, like communism?)
Believe it or not, I don’t spend any of the money. Vikorn’s accountant wires my modest ten percent share of the profits into my account with the Thai Farmer’s Bank every quarter, and I let it stack up, preferring to live on my cop’s salary in my hovel by the river when I’m not sleeping at the club. To be honest, I’ve promised the Buddha that when I get the chance I’ll do something useful with it. Does that sound pathetic to you, farang? It does to me, but there’s nothing I can do about it. When I tried to take some money out of the account to buy a fantastic pair of shoes by Baker-Benje on sale in the Emporium (only $500), I was prevented by some mystic force.”
Along with Sonchai’s Buddhist aspects is his preternatural ability to tap into the past lives of people he meets. In Bangkok Tattoo a young Muslim stranger comes looking for Sonchai at the club and Sonchai recognizes him from another life. By way of explanation, Sonchai refers to his teen years when he and his best friend, Pichai (who died in the first book), committed a crime which led to them being more-or-less incarcerated in a Buddhist monastery.
“Twelve months of intensive meditation in that forest monastery changed both of us in a way that is impossible for nonmeditators to understand. Ever since, I have experienced flashes of insight into the past lives of others. Sometimes the information is precise and easy to interpret, but most of the time it consists of rather vague phantasmagoric glimpses of another person’s inner life. This Muslim’s is something else, something so rare in Bangkok, I’m in shock. I’m almost certain of it: we met at the great Buddhist University at Nalanda, India, oh, about seven hundred years ago. I have to admit he’s kept his glow.
Sonchai and the young Muslim, Mustafa, interact throughout several chapters; Sonchai’s internal comments re their past relationship are dropped into the narration in such a matter-of-fact way that this unusual relationship doesn’t really seem all that unusual.
Of course, Sonchai himself is unusual in many ways, which in itself doesn’t set him apart from other detective protagonists, but he definitely isn’t what one would expect for a Thai police detective; for instance, he enjoys Chopin’s nocturnes…
“…real music is a taste I developed under the tutelage of a German who hired my mother for a few months in Munich when I was a kid-and who later ended up in our famous Bangkok high-security prison called Bang Kwan. My eleventh and twelfth years were crucial for me. My mother’s trade was unusually itinerant, and we spent nearly all the time abroad, in Paris and Munich where her sophisticated customers undertook duties as surrogate fathers. (I learned to love French cuisine and Proust, Beethoven and Nietzsche, Ermenegildo Zegna and Versace, croissants at Les Deux Magots and sunsets over the Pont Neuf in high summer, Strauss played by men in lederhosen while drinking steins of beer in a Munich Biergarten.) Unlike my mother, who loves the Doors (for reasons both sentimental and historic: Apocalypse Now is the only DVD she owns that is not a bootleg), I don’t much like rock or pop.”
In my previous post I noted that Sonchai often ponders the marked differences between Eastern and Western thought and ideology with insight and sardonic humour. This was one of the things I particularly enjoyed about Bangkok 8. Unfortunately the author upped Sonchai’s cynicism in Bangkok Tattoo; his first person narrative, with its increased use of reader-addressed ‘farang’ has taken on a rather condescending tone, lacking the wry humour I enjoyed in the first book. Sonchai’s usually thoughtful observations also seem more judgmental and far less spiritually informed.
But don’t let me dissuade you from reading Bangkok Tattoo; it’s a pretty good read… maybe just in need of better editing. I found the long digressions, ostensibly literary ‘backfill’ in the form of Chanya’s diary entries, slowed the action and often unnecessarily intruded on the story. Let’s just say, I think the next book is a better book.
“Sonchai has seen virtually everything on his beat in Bangkok’s District 8, but nothing like the video he’s just been sent anonymously: “Few crimes make us fear for the evolution of our species. I am watching one right now.”
He’s watching a snuff film. And the person dying before his disbelieving eyes is Damrong—a woman he once loved obsessively and, now it becomes clear, endlessly. And there is something more: something at the end of the film that leaves Sonchai both figuratively and literally haunted.
While his investigation will lead him through the office of the ever-scheming police captain, Vikorn (“Don’t spoil a great case with too much perfectionism,” he advises Sonchai); in and out of the influence of a perhaps psychotic wandering monk; and eventually into the gilded rooms of the most exclusive men’s club in Bangkok (whose members will do anything to protect their identities, and to explore their most secret fantasies), it also leads him to his own simple bedroom where he sleeps next to his pregnant wife while his dreams deliver him up to Damrong . . .”
Ferociously smart and funny, furiously fast-paced, and laced through with an erotic ghost story that gives a new dark twist to the life of our hero, Bangkok Haunts does exactly that from first page to last.”
I see I’m into ‘page five’ and heading towards the item on my last Tuesday’s list which refers to Sonchai’s ability to commune with the spirits of dead friends and lovers. I think the Sonchai Jitpleecheep of Bangkok Haunts deserves a post of his own, so I’ll be back with that on Moody Tuesday, 23rd April 2013