I am not a huge reader of genre fiction. There are, however, two writers - Bill James, of Wales, and Ken Bruen, of Ireland - who to my mind write crime fiction that transcends the limitations of the category and its imperatives. I've written here about both of them, and now I've discovered a third writer who deserves an even wider readership than he has built with his past three novels.
John Burdett is another Brit. A non-practicing lawyer, he lives most of the year in Hong Kong. Burdett's books are thrillers that also offer great insights into a huge, contradictory Asian city that is not Hong Kong.
Burdett writes about my favorite Asian capital, a big, sprawling, dirty city some folks loathe and other folks love. That city is Bangkok, Thailand. Burdett's books set there are, in order of publication: "Bangkok 8" (2003), "Bangkok Tattoo" (2005) and the soon-to-be-released "Bangkok Haunts."
Burdett published two novels set elsewhere before he started using Bangkok as the locale where his half-Thai, half-farang (foreigner) hero, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, plies his trade as a police detective. Jitpleecheep has a sideline helping his mother run a combination bar-brothel in a nightclub zone.
The novelist's choice of Sonchai's side job allows him to talk about a segment of Thailand and Thai culture that is the most willfully misunderstood aspect of visiting Thailand. The misunderstanding has even permeated popular culture. There are songs: "One Night in Bangkok Makes a Strong Man Crumble," etc. And there are endless sanctimonious articles in the mainstream press bemoaning the availability of young prostitutes on the streets of the capital and in beach towns like Pattaya. I'll let Burdett himself deal with the overhyped canard that Thailand vacations are primarily about sex with young hookers.
"Bangkok is one of the world's great cities, all of which own redlight districts.... The sex industry in Thailand is smaller per capita than in Taiwan, the Philippines or the United States. That it is more famous is probably because Thais are less coy about it than many other people. Most visitors to the kingdom enjoy wonderful vacations without coming across any evidence of sleaze at all."
Thank you, Mr. Burdett. I couldn't have said it any better myself. Disclaimers aside, though, Burdett's work is sexy. It is also page-turning gritty noir, splashed in the neon strangeness of a city of more than 12 million people, many of whom approach their life very differently from the way we do.
Thailand has never been defeated in war by a Western power. And this has made the Thais some of the most independent folks on earth. This independence and avoidance of direct daily contact with a Western form of government has, despite the pop-culture invasion of America avoided nowhere in the world, created a culture that can at one moment seem familiar and at the very next moment seem like life on another planet.
As far as I can tell, Burdett understands - and can write winningly about - the unique Thai psyche better than most Westerners. This means his trio of thrillers, full of bizarre characters and devious plot twists building the suspense, play in front of a compellingly esoteric background.
Foreground suspenseful, sexy and clever. Background, vividly exotic. A nice mix for an entertaining and oddly educational read.
If you like whodunits and why-dunits, enjoy travel literature and want to be teased along the way, John Burdett's three Bangkok books may be just the thing. Try one of them and see.