Saturday, July 15, 2006

Return of the Buddhist Policeman

One of the eye-opening delights of Bangkok 8, John Burdett's hilarious and mordant first book about a Royal Thai police detective named Sonchai Jitpleecheep, was the way Sonchai managed to be both an observant Buddhist and a shrewd cop. When a drug-crazed cobra killed his partner, the only other Buddhist in the Thai police force, Sonchai seemed to be honestly torn between religion and revenge; he managed to walk that delicate literary tightrope until the book's end.

In Sonchai's second outing, both of those important elements have been played down. Sonchai is still a Buddhist, but either his devotion hs been channeled into other pursuits or our fascination with his moral dilemma hashad the edge taken off it. Bangkok Tattoo is still an original, imaginative thriller, full of irony and social comment, but we don't get to see Sonchai on that tightrope very often.

Never mind. Burdett, who has soaked up enough Thai culture to fuel several more books, writes like a dark angel. His descriptions of the country villages kept alive and thriving on the money sent home by Bangkok's so-called exploited sex slaves is convincing; his breakfast menu bought from street vendors for $1.50 makes you want to fly to Bangkok for other pleasures.

And best of all are those increasingly rare but most welcome moments on the old tightrope. “Believe it or not, I don't spend any of the money,” Sonchai tells us about his partnership in the club owned by his mother and his boss. "Vikorn's accountant wires my modest ten percent share of the profits into my account with the Thai Farmer's Bank every quarter, and I let it stack up, preferring to live on my cop's salary in my hovel by the river when I'm not sleeping at the Club. To be honest, I've promised the Buddha that when I get the chance I'll do something useful with it… When I tried to take some money out of the account to buy a fantastic pair of shoes by Baker-Benje on sale in the Emporium (only $500), I was prevented by some mystic force.”