John Burdett

Books: Mystery

Sonchai Jitpleecheep: Bangkok 8 (2003), Bangkok Tattoo (2005), Bangkok Haunts (2007), The Godfather of Kathmandu (2010), Vulture Peak (2012)

Sonchai Jitpleecheep

Bangkok 8 (2003)

Sonchai and his life-long friend and now partner in the Bangkok police force, Pichai, are following an American Marine through Bangkok, on the orders of the Colonel, the head of the police department in his sector. When the Marine is murdered and the woman he was with has disappeared, Sonchai–for now personal reasons–searches for both the killer and the reason for the Marine's death.

First things first, this is NOT a book for my grandmother. She won't like it at all. Sonchai is the son of a Thai prostitute, and as such is quite familiar with the bars and prostitutes in Bangkok–visiting them frequently in his search for the missing woman. There are also frank discussions about prostitution and sex in Thailand. The drug trade is Thailand is also prominent in this book, and is discussed in detail–not just the business aspects of the trade, but also it's use throughout the city.

Now, caveats aside, I LOVED this book. Sonchai is a marvelously complex character. His mother was a very successful prostitute, so his background was such that he is multi-lingual and well-educated, which help to offset his obviously mixed parentage. He is also, like many others in the book, a devout Buddhist, and some of the beliefs were rather surprising, but the manner in which Sonchai blandly makes these statements keeps these beliefs acceptable (rather than surreal) to a Western mind (at least this Western mind.) Although I have to admit that there were multiple times where I was shocked by the things Sonchai so blithely accepts are part of doing business in Bangkok.

The mystery leads Sonchai back and forth between the city's prostitutes and the wealthy, and the way he shifts almost effortlessly between these two worlds–and seems to lack the outrage at these differences you'd except all things considered–gives the book at times a surreal feel. Additionally, Sonchai's acceptance of these things makes you realize how horrible something has to be before it causes outrage. And by the end of the book I was willing to accept Thai justice rather than expecting the usual American justice of a police procedural.

As the reviews on the say, this mystery is vivid and exotic and all those other things. But it is also an excellent and enjoyable read and one I highly recommend to anyone who isn't going to be bothered by the frank sexuality and drug use of the characters.

Audio Book (2003/2011) narrated by Paul Boehmer

Published by Random House Audio

Bangkok Tattoo (2005)

The sequel to Bangkok 8 returns us to Krung Thep, where Sonchai is now part owner of the Old Mans Club, in addition to remaining a detective in the Royal Thai Police Force. It is because they are in Bangkok that a devout Buddhist and policeman can also be part owner in a brothel–the remainder of the 90% of the business is split by Sonchai's mother and his boss, Colonel Vikorn.

When Chanya returns from a job dripping with blood and blankly stating that she's killed her customer, it is up to Sonchai to determine what has happened–and to take care of any cover-ups necessary to keep Chany safe.

This story is just as complex as the previous, although I had problems with this story that I didn't with the first. My major problem was that it looked as though there was a major revision at some point, but one chapter remained wholly unrevised, which threw me off entirely. Now I could have misread, but that chapter seemed shifted in time from the previous paragraph.

The second issue was that I had a clear idea as to the cause of the mutilation relatively early, but Sonchai doesn't get to it until much later. However, guessing that didn't help me any in understanding what was really going on. And as with the previous book, the resolution was a complete surprise.

I also was frustrated by the minimal attention paid to the two subplots: Lek and the changes he was going through, and Sonchai's father. Both of these plot lines were left open for a sequel, which is never my favorite.

There were so many twists and turns in the story, it was hard to know who to believe, and often when you decided to believe someone, you were wrong to have done so. And even when you learn the truth, you sometimes discover it wasn't the whole truth.

As with Bangkok 8 this book is not for the faint of heart. Much of the story takes place in a brothel, and the Thai characters are quite open about what happens there. Unlike the first story, much of the story takes place outside of Bangkok. We eventually learn of Chanya's time in the United States, and what happened to her there. And Sonchai travels to Songai Kolok in an attempt to discover what happened.

Again throughout the story we see Krung Thep through Sonchai's eyes, and despite the prostitution, drug use, and total corruption of both the military and the police, he loves the place, and strangely these things sometimes start to make sense. However, for a change, we also see the United States through Chanya's eyes, and what she has to say isn't always positive. In fact, both Sonchai and Chanya at times see hubris more than anything to respect when they consider the US. Despite the fact that I got very confused in the middle of the book, when things seemed to shift in time, I still enjoyed this book, and even knowing the levels of corruption that surround Sonchai, found myself again shocked by the conclusion, and by what upsets Sonchai and what he is calmly willing to accept.

If you enjoyed Bankgok 8 then you will want to read Bangkok Tattoo, however, I'd recommend starting and Bangkok 8 and not here, simply because I liked the first book a bit better, and the first book allows you to become accustomed to the corruption that this story begins with.

Audio Version (2005) narrated by Paul Boehmer

Publisher: Books on Tape

December 2017 | Unrated

Bangkok Haunts (2007)

Once again we return to Bangkok where Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is investigating another murder. A stuff film has appeared in Bagkok, and as the body of the prostitute has also appeared, it is apparent this is truly a film of her death. Sonchai is investigating–even against the orders of Colenol Vikorn–because the woman who was killed had worked for his mother several years previously.

Chanya is concerned about Sonchai and so has called Kimberly Jones, an FBI agent with whom Sonchai has developed a friendship.

First and foremost, for those who have not read about Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep previously, he's half Thai and half American, and his education is thanks to the fact his mother was an expensive prostitute when he was growing up. Prostitution and sex are important themes. Though the descriptions are quite graphic, they're almost clinical in the description of what is happening (which is fitting since many of the descriptions are of the snuff film).

Second, Bangkok is a strange place, and as with previous books, Sonchai sees and relates to the spirits of the recent dead. (This doesn't go over well with Kimberly, but she still does not understand Thailand and Bangkok, so Sonchai was expecting this.)

I'm bothered by the former rather than the later, but from reading the reviews on Amazon, others found the spiritualism to be the disturbing element that was “out of place in a police procedural.” I think both are part and parcel of who Sonchai and the world in which he lives–a world that is corrupt yet strangely alive.

The book refers to events in previous book, but you do not have to have read those books to follow the events in this story. However, I'm always a big proponent of reading stories in order, so my recommendation–if you think this is a book you'd like–is to read Bangkok 8 first, and then see how you feel about Sonchai. Personally, I can't wait for the next Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep book to come out.

May 2009 | Rating: 8/10

The Godfather of Kathmandu (2010)

Several years ago I feel in love with Bangkok 8. Sonchai is a fascinating complex character and the city in which he lives is a character in the book as complex as he is. So I was happy to see The Godfather of Kathmandu arrive. I had waited until it came out in paperback, because I really really do not like reading hardback books. (I'm starting to dislike even trade paperbacks, to be honest.)

When I finished the book, I still wasn't any more sure about how I felt about it than halfway through the book.

First, Sonchai's son is dead at the start of the book. A terrible, stupid accident, but neither Sonchai or Chanya seems capable of dealing with the loss. That's a hard thing.

Second, the Colonel has decided that he is promoting Sonchai. Unfortunately, he is not promoting him a a police officer, but as his second in command in his criminal enterprises. Sonchai, who is still trying to keep to the Buddhist past, attempts to resist, but outside pressures cause him to accede to the Colonel's request, so he is sent off to Tibet, to look into a major drug deal with the mysterious Tietsin.

And in the middle of this falls an inexplicable murder of a fat farang. A man found dead in a squalid motel with his guts strewn out before. And then Sonchai finds another ugly twist to the death, that makes things even more inexplicable.

I cannot decide what it is about this story. I read it as eagerly as I have any of the books in the series, and it wasn't like the tale was any more all over the place than in previous books, it was just that something felt off.

If you have not read one of Burdett's Sonchai Jitpleecheep, I would not recommend this as a place to start (for a variety reasons). But I do recommend reading Bangkok 8

Published by Vintage

May 2011 | Rating: 7/10

Vulture Peak (2012)

Sonchai is in over his head now. Colonel Vikorn has decided (was ordered?) to run for governor of Bangkok. Because General Zinna controls the local trade in body parts, Vikorn has decided that wiping out selling of illegal body parts is the way to make his name and propel himself into the governorship while (perhaps finally) taking down Zinna.

In the meantime, Chanya is working on her PhD (looking at women and prostitution of course) but is having serious problems with her advisor, who strenuously disagrees with Chanya's ideas on women and power and prostitution.

Sonchai has been traveling further afield and this book is no exception. Vikorn send him abroad to make the proper connections in the trade, (Sonchai's facility with languages makes him the best candidate for these adventures).

As usual, I love the complexity of both Sonchai and the world in which he lives. He's a copy, but he has no problem with illegal drugs (how could he, when his boss controls the local heroin/morphine trade?) or prostitution (again, how could he considering that he's part owner of a local club, with his mother and his boss).

I'll be very curious to see what (if anything) happens to Sonchai, in the future.

Published by Vintage Crime

September 2012 | Rating: 8/10