Lauren Cono, 129 TESS
Title: Bangkok Eight
Author: John Burdett
It is a paradoxically slow and chaotic storyline that encapsulates Thai culture quite well. At the same time, it is a rice cooker bubbling over with drugs, prostitution, corruption and karma, making it a classic mystery crime novel topped with some Thai prik.
After living here two years, it’s a pleasure meandering along the streets of Krung Thep, recognizing street names, BTS stops and building references. There is also amusing commentary throughout the prose about the interplay between the west and east with several asides orated directly at the farang reading this.
The main character is a Thai detective whose clarity on the investigation deepens between his mediation and ganja smoking; Sonchai is an ex-criminal, reformed monk, turned incorruptible cop with a keen intuition and a relaxed way of doing his business even when seeking revenge. I enjoyed reading from his Thai perspective (although a farang wrote the novel) which understands the impatient Western mindset yet adheres to a Buddhist ethos. He is working with Americans on a investigation, because he knows the best English.
The murder-mystery was made most enjoyable by the constant cultural references and less because of any suspense. At times the drama feels gaudy yet dimmed, like neon lights on a sunny day, yet it’s often accurate seeing as it is depicting images of KhaoSan road and Soi Cowboy. There is the realism of the everyday grind in the story too, as Sonchai has flashbacks to his childhood, lives in a concrete hovel with nothing to steal, journeys through many of the slums and yearns for his best friend. The novel is double-edged: it can be painfully deep and overly light-hearted, either way, it is not a book for those easily-offended because it touches on many sensitive subjects.
There’s jazz, corrupt cops, sex changes, Khmer assaissians, Russian pimps, gems and even snakes in this tale of Bangkok’s district eight. Like any decent mystery, the ending has its spicy twists, and like any good Thai meal it satisfies while still leaving you hungry for more.
Read Lauren’s previous articles and contributions.