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Bangkok 8    by John Burdett order for
Bangkok 8
by John Burdett
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

If you enjoyed Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park and Eliot Pattison's The Skull Mantra, then you'll love Bangkok 8. Its narrator, Sonchai, is the son of a whore and (he assumes) an American G.I. on leave from Vietnam. Sonchai is a Thai police officer partnered with his 'soul brother' Pichai, who plans to be ordained soon as a monk. The two became 'arhat', honest cops (after a stint in a northern forest monastery) as penance for the murder of a 'yaa baa' (methamphetamine) dealer.

As the story opens, Sonchai and Pichai are following a black Marine and a girl with a green and orange streaked Afro hairstyle in a Mercedes. After a high speed chase involving 'close encounters with cooked-food stalls, sex traders and oncoming traffic', they catch up with the car at a squatter village of Karen tribespeople beside Dao Phrya Bridge. Inside the car, an enormous python is trying to swallow the Marine's head. Adding insult to injury are dozens of spitting cobras, one of which kills Pichai.

The US Embassy gets involved and Sonchai is soon loosely partnered with female FBI agent Kimberley Jones. They work together across a huge cultural divide, since Buddhist Sonchai considers most Westerners 'infantile bundles of appetite'. He has an ability to see (or imagine, depending on your viewpoint) people's past lives, and this inclusion of reincarnated lives ('pinballs of eternity') adds depth to the backstory. There are also flashbacks to Sonchai's trips abroad with his mother's lovers, and what he learned from each of them.

As Sonchai tracks his soul brother's killer, he finds links to the jade and yaa baa ('mad drug') trades. There is also a Western gem dealer with connections at the highest levels and depraved sexual habits. Sonchai recognizes the mysterious woman (also a half-caste) as his dark side. There is a surprising resolution to the mystery of her involvement and to how snakes were unleashed in the locked car. Along the way Sonchai learns something about his father and helps his mother implement a hilarious scheme to make her fortune through 'libido therapy to the aged'.

I especially enjoyed the novel's ambience, having travelled in Thailand - though I never did see an elephant with tail-lights! Sonchai is a hard-boiled dick, Thai style. There is a deep spiritual layer underlying the poor cop who knows his way around a society rife with (indeed that runs on) corruption. As East meets West, most of the westerners involved in this story end up older, wiser and (deservedly) with the scars to show for it. I very much hope that Burdett writes more about Sonchai in Bangkok.

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