October 13, 2006

Bangkok Eight & Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

These two books are gripping and entertaining crime novels set in the Thai capital (as you can probably guess from their titles!). There have been other crime novels set in the Land of Smiles written by Western writers, notably the Vinny Calvino novels by Christopher G. Moore, but unlike the others, Burdett takes the brave step of making the main protagonist (and first person narrator) of his books a Thai policeman, Sonchai Jittlepeep. This has the effect of adding another layer of exoticism to the stories, as it offers an insider's view of the Thai system and a different way of looking at the world.

Burdett cleverly makes his hero half-Thai, who has spent some of his childhood overseas (his mother was a bar girl who conceived Sonchai with an American servicemen during the Vietnam War, or so we are led to believe), which allows him to display an insight into how the Western mind works, but preferring to find comfort in Buddhist teachings. The question of just how convincing a Thai character Sonchai actually is, though, can only be answered by a Thai, despite Burdett's extensive experience of life in Asia. But, I can say that he manages successfully to paint a very colourful picture of the city.

Both novels contain an interesting cast of characters (Sonchai's mother, Nong, and Colonel Vikorn, the powerful chief of police in Bangkok district 8, to name but two), and the stories turn out to be less whodunnit than 'howsitgointoplayout', though this in no way detracts from the pace, tension or enjoyment of the books.

There is a tendency in places for Sonchai to come across as a little preachy in his criticism of Western perceptions, and he somehow bizarrely assumes that the readers are, by default, Westerners, as some of this criticism is directed towards the reader. This is a fairly fresh and interesting device in the first book, but has less effect in Bangkok Tattoo, as it's no longer a surprise. This is likely to become a little laboured if it is continued too much in any future Sonchai novels. Having said that, I devoured both books and will be eagerly looking out for any further installations.

(Just as a final note, I wonder if it's possible for a Western writer to pen a novel about Thailand without using bar girls, ladyboys and corrupt policemen as the basis of their stories. As any visitor to the country can testify, Thailand has a lot more to offer than just that.)

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