We tend to think of crime fiction as reading designed for entertainment — not education. It delivers an almost pure kind of readerly pleasure — the mystery solved, justice delivered, roughly or otherwise. But consider, for a moment, how often crime stories concerns themselves with unveiling a society — or slice of society — that has received little or the wrong kind of attention. With his Bangkok novels, John Burdett strives for both. As a British expatriate living in Bangkok for more than two decades, it’s a given Burdett writes from an outsider’s perspective, but he takes this several steps further with the novel’s common protagonist, police detective Sonchai Jitpleetcheep, moving well beyond entertainment towards the more
The proof is in the opening lines of The Godfather of Kathmandu: “Ours is an age of enforced psychosis. I’ll forgive yours, farang, if you’ll forgive mine — but let’s talk about it later.” Right away Burdett establishes Sonchai’s didactic attitude towards the reader, equal parts contempt and curiosity. There’s confrontation in Sonchai’s reminder here (just as in his three previous appearances, Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts) that the reader is a farang, a foreigner, and thus the other, someone to be admonished or cajoled, addressed directly or skilfully evaded.
But because Sonchai himself is part-farang (his mother, Nong, runs a high-demand brothel; his father is of murky European origin) his roots and occupation shunt him to the periphery of a Thai society bound by hierarchy and class. Thus Sonchai’s attitude extends just as much to himself — in all its confrontational and evasive glory. And it’s that sense of evasion that forms the heart of the series to date, for we, the readers, are made aware of certain things at inopportune times, subject to Sonchai’s whims of storytelling that digress, tease, and get to the point when he chooses.
This sort of literary fencing is a risky proposition, and I found that Burdett’s previous three books fell short of his Socratic ideal. The crimes Sonchai investigates are lurid and clue-ridden, but solutions come as an afterthought. The character of Kimberley Jones, an FBI agent who morphs from adversary to friend, embraces Eastern culture in a manner that distractingly echoes “Victor/Victoria” — in this case, an American woman pretending to be a Thai woman pretending to be an American professional. The wild and woolly narrative expands and contracts, traveling on tangential strands that bear little relation to the main story.
But a funny thing happened while reading those same three books, as each produced a peculiar sensation that can only be described as akin to the hallucinogens Sonchai ingests in order to bridge spiritual enlightenment with his more down-to-earth profession of homicide investigation. When immersed in the story, I felt disoriented, uncomfortable, my sense of what crime fiction is supposed to be knocked off-kilter by forces I couldn’t quite identify. Sonchai’s perpetual reminder of the reader’s hopeless conformity to farang status applied equally well to hapless critics with specific categorical intentions. Once I put the book down, I wanted another dose, another opportunity to see if Burdett would, in fact, inch closer to his platonic ideal of commercial fiction.
Maybe it’s the deviation from the title scheme, or Sonchai’s tempered arrogance (“Confession: I provoked the world and the world turned on me.”) or Burdett’s increasing comfort pushing against genre constraints, but The Godfather of Kathmandu comes the closest to its idealized overall objective. In doing so it more or less inverts the traditional crime narrative, fully relegating the story’s so-called inciting force of murder behind Sonchai’s overt search for personal redemption.
He has good reason to be on a spiritual quest: his partner in policing, Pichai, has been dead for years, and now so too is Sonchai’s same-named son, splitting apart his once-happy marriage to Chanya and leaving the detective in a rather precarious spot. Finally, he had succumbed to the Bangkok style of policing, i.e. taking bribes and running “errands” (of a most illegal variety) for his swaggering boss Vikorn, the newest one requiring several jaunts to the snow-covered hills of Nepal’s capital city to flush out a competitor and snare a new drug supplier. Sonchai’s better-paying side job intersects with the measly pay of legitimate policing when the body of a well-known American filmmaker, Frank Charles, is found, grotesquely mirroring the handiwork of the fictional psychopath Hannibal Lecter (down to the brain cannibalism) and, eventually, connected to the drug-running goings-on in Nepal and Tibet.
There’s plenty of busywork for Sonchai as a result, but even more than before, the insight into the detective’s inner life takes the main stage. Before their marriage goes on hiatus, Chanya pinpoints his contradictory nature just after she advises him to take Vikorn’s offer: “I love you so much, and I love you most for your conscience. You’re the most genuinely devout Buddhist I know. Everyone else follows the rules. You really think about karma and reincarnation. It’s very admirable.” But Sonchai feels the appropriate mix of guilt and self-loathing: “my noble sacrifice of integrity only made me feel like I was drowning in a sewer.”
Even Sonchai’s detecting skills are questioned, his assumptions about the victim challenged by the person responsible for the murder: “you are a terrible naïf,” the murderer taunts, “and this leads you to misjudge human character. You are still thinking of Frank as a victim, just because he got bumped off. Actually, it was the opposite. When farang get greedy, they have no restraint…no fancy psychological component, just old-fashioned greed and the American predatory spirit.”
Burdett also ups the ante on digression, playing with the role of narrator as evader. At a key point, Sonchai whispers, “Now, reader dear, would you permit a pause in the breathless narrative while I sing praises? Briefly, if it’s God you’re after…the Pilgrim’s Bookshop is the outfit for you.” Or take Sonchai’s penchant for announcing his current whereabouts to his readers at all times: “I’m still here, farang, at the Rose Garden. I’ve commuted from the bathroom to the bar, but I’m way too stoned to order alcohol.” Instead of irritating, these tangents serve a greater purpose: showing the reader how Sonchai hesitates to confronts basic truths about his nature, about merging spiritual peace with more carnal pursuits (hence the mind-blowing sex with a Tibetan temptress mid-way through the novel.)
Sonchai, however, doesn’t discard his tendency to confront the reader, and as a result we are confronted with some well-stated truths, like “violence…is a form of lust, a primitive kind of consumerism: early capitalism, you might say.” And as for our Bangkok sleuth, he inches ever closer to climbing out of “the filthy continuum” — which is all a tortured cop can ever hope for.