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Bangkok Tattoo (Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series #2)

Bangkok Tattoo (Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series #2)

4.3 31
by John Burdett

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Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police returns in his riveting and smokily atmospheric new thriller.A farang–a foreigner–has been murdered, his body horribly mutilated, at the Bangkok brothel co-owned by Sonchai’s mother and his boss. The dead man was a CIA agent. To make matters worse, the apparent culprit is sweet-natured Chanya,


Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep of the Royal Thai Police returns in his riveting and smokily atmospheric new thriller.A farang–a foreigner–has been murdered, his body horribly mutilated, at the Bangkok brothel co-owned by Sonchai’s mother and his boss. The dead man was a CIA agent. To make matters worse, the apparent culprit is sweet-natured Chanya, the brothel’s top earner and a woman whom the devoutly Buddhist sleuth has loved for several lifetimes. How can Sonchai solve this crime without sending Chanya to prison? How can he engage in a cover-up without endangering his karma? And how will he ever get to the bottom of a case whose interested parties include American spooks, Muslim fundamentalists, and gangsters from three countries? As addictive as opium, as hot as Sriracha chili sauce, and bursting with surprises, Bangkok Tattoo will leave its mark on you.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“An original, imaginative thriller. . . . Burdett writes like a dark angel.” –Chicago Tribune “You will read on and on, with wide-eyed fascination, some horror. . . and considerable delight. . . . If you’re looking for a good time, look no further.” –The Washington Post Book World “Mesmerizing: a comic tour of the underbelly of Bangkok in pursuit of both a murderer and the sublime.”–The New Yorker
The Barnes & Noble Review
Lawyer-turned-novelist John Burdett revisits the seedy red light district of Thailand's capital in Bangkok Tattoo, the follow-up to 2003's critically acclaimed Bangkok 8.

Royal Thai police detective and devout Buddhist Sonchai Jitpleecheep is stuck between a proverbial rock and a hard place when a CIA agent is found brutally murdered in a brothel owned in part by the detective's mother and his corrupt boss, Colonel Vikorn. The only witness -- and suspect -- is a seductively beautiful prostitute named Chanya, "a tantric master in a G-string, a topless sorceress" and the Old Man's Club's biggest breadwinner. If Jitpleecheep arrests Chanya, his mother's struggling business could go belly up; but if he agrees to follow Colonel Vikorn's lead and blame the murder on a terrorist connected to al-Qaeda, he could very well be bringing all-out war to Thailand. As the CIA brings in more manpower to ineptly investigate the operative's horrific murder (he was castrated and partially skinned), Jitpleecheep slowly gets the real -- and jaw-dropping -- story out of Chanya, whose account includes an extended trip across pre-9/11 America, opium addiction, Homer Simpson, and a tattoo-obsessed john.

Featuring all kinds of corruption and vices (from twisted sexual propensities to military and political subversion to drug and weapons trafficking), the exotic setting of Bangkok -- and especially the striking difference between Southeast Asian culture and Western philosophy -- makes Burdett's mystery a simply unforgettable read. Paul Goat Allen
Charles Taylor
Burdett's singular contribution to the contemporary mystery novel may be the way he breaks with the genre's judgmental puritanism when it comes to the sex trade. Is it simply the adolescent strain in American hard-boiled fiction that makes it impossible for the genre's practitioners to give us a stripper or prostitute who is aware of what she's doing, who has chosen to do it and who is putting together a good life thanks to her profession? This novel's explorations of the quid pro quo at work in the intersection of the Eastern sex trade and Western sex tourists doesn't go as deep as the critically ridiculed examination of the same transactions in Michel Houellebecq's Platform. But Burdett scorns the convenient fetish of victimhood so often present in writing about women like the ones who populate his book.
— The New York Times
Michael Dirda
By turns sordid, disorienting and, at its heart, accepting and good-natured about our flawed human condition, Bangkok Tattoo is as seductive as Chanya, Nat, Marly, Lalita or any of the other girls at The Old Man's Club. And that's saying something. If you're looking for a good time, look no further.
— The Washington Post
The New Yorker
Bangkok’s red-light districts, perhaps the most infamous in the world, have inspired their share of breathless prose. Here, however, the tone is mordant, thanks to the serene narration of Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the Thai police detective who steered readers through Burdett’s previous novel, “Bangkok 8.” A devout Buddhist, Sonchai makes complex karmic calculations to justify his roles as law-bending cop and part-time papasan at his mother’s go-go bar. When the bar’s biggest moneymaker is suspected of killing her john, who turns out to be C.I.A., Sonchai initiates a coverup that eventually involves Muslim separatists in southern Thailand and American operatives eager to exploit post-9/11 paranoia for career advancement. The plot showcases Burdett’s sly riffs on Third World stereotypes, Buddhism, and the gustatory pleasures of fried grasshoppers. It’s a giddy, occasionally over-the-top performance, but mesmerizing: a comic tour of the underbelly of Bangkok in pursuit of both a murderer and the sublime.
Publishers Weekly
In Burdett's brilliantly cynical mystery thriller, the follow-up to Bangkok 8 (2004), Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is called in by his supervisor, hard-bitten Captain Vikorn, to investigate the murder of a CIA operative, Mitch Turner, found disemboweled and mutilated. The prime suspect is a beautiful bar girl, Chanya, with whom Sonchai believes himself to be in love. When Turner's murder turns out to be far more complicated than originally thought, Sonchai must deal with his boss's rages and Chanya's gradually revealed secrets, along with CIA agents who have come to investigate the crime, a Thai army general with whom Vikorn has been feuding for years, Yakuza gangsters, Japanese tattooists, Muslim fundamentalists and more. Thoroughly familiar with Thailand, Burdett does an impressive job of depicting an often romanticized society from the inside out. His characters are unforgettable, his dialogue fast-paced and perfectly pitched, his numerous asides and observations generally as cutting as they are funny. Agent, Jane Gelfman. 9-city author tour. (May 16) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In his second case (after Bangkok 8), Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep stumbles over a murdered CIA agent; what's worse, he's sweet on the main suspect. With a nine-city tour. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Another wacky, wild-side traipse through Thailand's fleshpots, eateries and spiritual havens, with the marvelously peculiar half-American, half-Thai Buddhist police detective. Burdett's sequel to Bangkok 8 (2003) begins with a wonderful opening line, "Killing customers just isn't good for business." The speaker is Det. Sonchai Jitpleecheep's mother Nong, who is disappointed that the Chanya, the irresistibly beautiful top-wage earner in the popular brothel, the Old Man's Club, seems to have castrated, flayed and murdered an opium-addled American, CIA Agent Mitch Turner. Sonchai's superior (and co-owner of the brothel), Colonel Vikorn, has a plan: blame it on al-Qaida. This doesn't sit well with a bunch of moderate Muslims, whose imam may have converted Turner to Islam. A pair of clueless CIA agents sent to investigate are more concerned with finding Turner's missing laptop, until one falls in love with Sonchai's mother and another, after a fling with a different Old Man's Club prostitute, is murdered in an identical fashion. Then there's Colonel Vikorn's rival, the dope-smuggling Army General Zinna, who doesn't want additional CIA spies to interfere with his plan to remove peasants from ancestral farmlands, all in order to make way for a Japanese eucalyptus plantation and disposable-chopsticks manufacturing plant. Stepping lightly between so many comically conflicted interests, Sonchai must also cope with a new partner, Lek, who can't quite decide if he should continue with police work or get a sex-change operation to become a "katoey" dancer. Burdett is gleefully entertaining as he uses Sonchai's Buddhist pragmatism to explore his exotically varied setting-the murders have something to dowith a diabolically ingenious tattoo artist hiding in Bangkok from spiritual and criminal demons. But he lets Sonchai's infatuation for the infinitely talented Chanya turn the story into a clever but tiring post-9/11 analysis of how American moralists like the bright, brawny but doomed Mitch Turner (and, by implication, his counterparts among the Muslim fundamentalists) can be so wrong when they're sure they're right. Baroquely complicated, and a bit too preachy but, otherwise, a wry, wise and wonderful romp. Author tour

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series , #2
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Killing customers just isn’t good for business.”

My mother Nong’s tone reflects the disappointment we all feel when a star employee starts to go wrong. Is there nothing to be done? Will we have to let dear Chanya go? The question can only be decided by Police Colonel Vikorn, who owns most of the shares in the Old Man’s Club and who is on his way in his Bentley.

“No,” I agree. Like my mother’s, my eyes cannot stop flicking across the empty bar to the stool where Chanya’s flimsy silver dress (just enough silk to cover nipples and butt) drapes and drips. Well, the dripping was slight and is more or less finished (a rusty stain on the floor turning black as it dries), but in more than a decade as a detective in the Royal Thai Police, I have never seen a garment so blood-soaked. Chanya’s bra, also hideously splattered, lies halfway up the stairs, and her panties—her only other garment—lie abandoned on the floor outside the upstairs room where, eccentrically even for a Thai whore, she has taken refuge with an opium pipe.

“She didn’t say anything at all? Like why?”

“No, I told you. She dashed in through the door in a bit of a state holding an opium pipe, glared at me, said, ‘I’ve done him in,’ ripped off her dress, and disappeared upstairs. Fortunately, there were only a couple of farang in the bar at the time, and the girls were fantastic. They merely said, ‘Oh, Chanya, she goes like that sometimes,’ and gently ushered them out. I had to play the whole thing down, of course, and by the time I got to her room, she was already stoned.”

“What did she say again?”

“She was tripping on the opium, totally delirious. When she started talking to the Buddha, I left to call you and the Colonel. At that stage I didn’t know if she’d really done him in or was freaking out on yaa baa or something.”

But she’d snuffed him all right. I walked to the farang’s hotel, which is just a couple of streets away from Soi Cowboy, and flashed my police ID to get the key to his room. There he was, a big muscular naked American farang in his early thirties, minus a penis and a lot of blood from a huge knife wound that began in his lower gut and finished just short of his rib cage. Chanya, a basically decent and very tidy Thai, had placed his penis on the bedside table. At the other end of the table, a single rose stood in a plastic mug of water.

There was nothing for it but to secure the room for the purposes of forensic investigation, leave a hefty bribe for the hotel receptionist—who is now more or less obliged to say whatever I tell him to say (standard procedure under my Colonel Vikorn in District 8)—and await further orders. Vikorn, of course, was in one of his clubs carousing, probably surrounded by naked young women who adored him, or knew how to look as if they did, and in no mood to be dragged to the scene of a crime until I penetrated his drunken skull enough to explain that the business at hand was not an investigation per se but the infinitely more challenging forensic task so lightly spoken of as a “cover-up.” Even then he showed no inclination to shift himself until he realized it was Chanya (the perp, not the victim).

“Where the hell did she get the opium?” my mother wants to know. “There hasn’t been opium in Krung Thep since I was a teenager.”

I know from her eyes that she is thinking fondly of the Vietnam War, when she was herself a working girl in Bangkok and a lot of the GIs brought small balls of opium from the war zone (one of them being my almost-anonymous father, of whom more later). An opiated man is more or less impotent—which reduces much of the wear and tear on a professional’s assets—and not inclined to argue about fee structure. Nong and her colleagues had always shown special interest in any American serviceman who whispered that he had a little opium back in his hotel. Being devout Buddhists, of course, the girls never used the stuff themselves, but they encouraged the john to get stoned out of his tree, whereupon they would extract exactly the agreed fee from his wallet, plus a tip somewhat on the generous side to reflect the risk inherent in associating with drug abusers, plus taxi fare, and return to work. Integrity has always been a master word for Nong, which is why she is so upset about Chanya.

We both know the Colonel is arriving in his limo, because his damned signature tune “The Ride of the Valkyries” is booming from the stereo as his car approaches. I go to the entrance and watch while his driver opens the rear door and more or less pulls him out (a beautiful cashmere Zegna sports jacket, fawn colored and somewhat crumpled, pants by Eddy Monetti on the Via Condotti in Rome, and his usual Wayfarer wraparound sunglasses).

The driver staggers toward me with Vikorn’s arm over his shoulder. “It’s fucking Saturday fucking night,” the driver complains with a glare, as if it’s all my fault. (We prefer not to investigate even capital crimes on Saturday nights in District 8.) The Buddhist path can be much like the Christian in that the karma of others often seems to get dumped on your shoulders from out of nowhere.

“I know,” I tell him as I make way to let him pass, and Vikorn, sunglasses now thrust fashionably onto his hairline though slightly askew, also glares at me blearily.

There are padded benches in intimate little booths along the back wall of the club, and the driver dumps Vikorn down in one while I get some mineral water from the fridge and hand it to my Colonel, who empties the bottle in a few swigs. It is with relief that I observe the rodent cunning return to those frank, unblinking eyes. I tell him the story again, with a few commercially focused interjections from my mother (“she makes more for us in a month than all the other girls put together”), and I see that he already has a plan to maximize wriggle-room should things get difficult.

Within ten minutes he is close to sober, tells his driver to disappear with the limo (he doesn’t want to broadcast that he is here), and is staring at me. “So let’s go up and take her statement. Get an ink pad and some A4 paper.”

I find the ink pad that we use for our business stamp (“The Old Man’s Club—Rods of Iron”) and some sheets of paper from the fax machine, which Nong installed for those few of our overseas clients who don’t have e-mail (we tried for hooker.com and similar domain names, but they had all been taken, including oldman.com; whore.org had of course been taken since the dawn of cyberspace, so we had to make do with omcroi.com), and follow him across the bar. He stares at Chanya’s dress on the stool and cocks an eye at me.


“Fake or real?”

Gingerly I hold it up, hefting the weight of the blood it has absorbed. “Unclear.”

He grunts much as Maigret used to do, as if absorbing a clue too subtle for my understanding, and we continue up the stairs, passing the bra without comment. I pick up the panties on the floor outside the room (almost weightless and apparently innocent of bloodstains—they are more a cache-sex than a proper undergarment, with the rear panel no more than a bootlace that divides the buttocks). I hang them over a stray electrical cable for now. Chanya was too stoned to lock the door, and when we enter, she blesses us with a rapturous smile from that awesomely beautiful mouth, before returning to whichever of the Buddha heavens she has escaped to.

She is quite naked, stretched out on the bed with her legs akimbo, her full firm breasts pointing at the ceiling (an exquisite blue dolphin is jumping over her left nipple), her long hair shining like a fresh black brushstroke on the white pillow. She has shaved her pubic hair save for the subtlest filigree black line, which seems to point to her clitoris, perhaps as a road sign for drunk and fumbling farang. The opium pipe, a classic of about three feet of bamboo with the bowl two-thirds of the way down, lies beside her. The Colonel sniffs and smiles—as with my mother, the sweet aroma of burned poppy sap holds fond memories for him, though of a radically different order. (He used to trade it up in Laos in the golden years of the B-52s.) The room is tiny and hardly big enough for the three of us when I bring two chairs and set them on opposite sides of the bed. The sex goddess between us begins to snore while Vikorn dictates her statement:

“ ‘The farang had been drinking even before he came into my club. He called me over to join him at his table and offered to buy me a drink. I accepted a Coca-Cola while he drank’—ah, let’s see—‘nearly a full bottle of Mekong whiskey. He did not seem to be able to take alcohol very well and seemed confused and disoriented. When he offered to pay my bar fine and take me back to his hotel, I told him he was too drunk, but he insisted, and my papasan, one Sonchai Jitpleecheep, asked me as a special favor to go with the farang, who was very big and muscular and seemed likely to cause trouble if I didn’t.’ ”

“Thanks,” I say.

“ ‘He struck me as a man with many problems and talked rather abusively about women, especially American women, whom he called cunts. I think perhaps he had had a relationship that had gone badly wrong and that left him with very strong feelings of bitterness toward all women, even though he claimed to like Asian women, who he said were much kinder and gentler than farang women and more womanly. When we reached his room, I suggested to him that he was perhaps too drunk to make love and that it would be better if I went back to my club. I even offered to give him back my bar fine, but he grew angry and said he could fuck all night and pushed me into the room. He ordered me to undress, and I did so. I was now quite frightened because I had seen a large knife’—do we have the murder weapon?”

“A large knife, as a matter of fact—looks like a military thing, solid steel with about a twelve-inch blade. I left it in the hotel room for now.”

“ ‘An enormous military-type weapon lying on a bedside table. He started to tell me what he would do to my body if I didn’t gratify his desires. He stripped naked and threw me on the bed, but he seemed unable to get an erection. He started to masturbate to make himself big, then made me turn over onto my front. It was then I realized that he intended to sodomize me. I begged him not to because I never do that sort of thing, and his member now was so big I was sure he would injure me. Still he insisted, without using a condom or a lubricant, and the pain was so great I started to scream. He became very angry and grabbed a pillow to try to stifle my screams, whereupon I completely lost control of my mind because I was sure he would kill me. Luckily I was able to reach the knife, which I swung around behind me while he was still inside me. By chance I seem to have severed his penis. He went into shock at first and stood up, hardly able to believe what had happened. He kept staring at his penis, which was lying on the floor near the bed (it popped out of me and must have fallen off him when he stood up), then he let out a terrible bestial yell and jumped on top of me. I had turned over onto my back, and unfortunately I was still holding the knife in both hands in a vertical position, and it penetrated his lower abdomen when he landed. His struggles only made the wound bigger. I did what I could to save his life, but it took some time to push him off me because he was very heavy. I was too much in shock to call the police, until I realized he was dead and then it was too late. All I could do to show respect was to pick up his penis and put it on the bedside table. My dress and bra had been on the bed and were soaked in blood. I had to put them on before I could leave the room. When I got back to the bar, I stripped off my clothes and ran up to the comfort rooms, where I took a powerful tranquilizer and lost consciousness.

“ ‘This statement was taken by Police Colonel Vikorn and Detective Jitpleecheep of Royal Thai Police District 8 while I was in full possession of my faculties. It is true to the best of my knowledge and belief, in testimony of which I hereby set my right thumb print.’ ”

I open the ink pad and roll her thumb over the ink, then onto the bottom of the paper. Vikorn, a consummate professional, has neatly ended her report without the need for a second page.

“Anything I’ve left out?”

“No,” I say in awe. The statement is a masterly mosaic of several standard stories from the Game, artfully interwoven with great economy of language. Still more remarkable in a cop who carries his legal scholarship so lightly, he has laid the foundations for an impregnable defense to a charge of murder or even manslaughter: she used only such force as was necessary to save her life and did not deliver the fatal blow; when she saw how badly he was wounded, she attempted without success to save his life; and she expressed sorrow and respect by her sensitive placing of his severed member in a position of honor. The dead farang’s standard-issue hatred of the opposite sex arising from bitter personal experience of his own countrywomen provides a motive for his aggression and his sexual preferences. “I think you’ve covered everything.”

“Good. Give her a copy when she wakes up, and make sure she memorizes it. If there’s anything she wants to change, tell her she can’t.”

“D’you want to visit the scene of the crime?”

“Not really. Anyway, it wasn’t a crime, so don’t prejudice justice by calling it that. Self-defense is not illegal, especially when by a woman on a Saturday night in Krung Thep.”

“Still, I think you’d better come,” I say. He grunts irritably but stands up anyway and jerks his chin in the general direction of the street.

Meet the Author

John Burdett is a nonpracticing lawyer who worked in Hong Kong for a British firm until he found his true vocation as a writer. Since then, he has lived in France and Spain and is now back in Hong Kong.

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Bangkok Tattoo (Sonchai Jitpleecheep Series #2) 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
Tigerpaw70 More than 1 year ago
Book 2 in the Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep mystery series This sequel to "Bangkok 8" has all the elements necessary to take the readers on a precarious ride through the sweltering hot and sticky streets that form the flamboyant underbelly of one of Asia's most lively cities.... Bangkok. The mystery is told in the riveting voice of detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a product of mixed parentage with Buddhist beliefs, a good cop by day and a papasan in the family brothel by night. The story opens with Chanya, a working girl at "The Old Man`s Club" (owned by Colonel Vikorn and Sonchai`s mother), returning from a trick, dazed and covered in blood, coincidently rumour has it CIA agent Mitch Turner has been found near by murdered and his genitals brutally mutilated. Chanya a popular and important asset to the club quickly becomes the prime suspect. Colonel Vikorn decides with the help of Sonchai to construct a cover-up to portray Chanya as a victim acting in self- defence....a statement is created and Chanya goes into hiding. Sonchai always the professional at heart, feels something is not right and the suspense escalates. Sonchai's investigation introduces us to prostitutes, katoyes( Lady Boys) sex tourists and very murky characters that roam the streets of Bangkok's notorious District 8. The action eventually takes us even deeper into the heart of Thailand, revealing a possible connection to Al-Qaeda, added to the saga is a mix of rogue CIA agents and drug dealers. A tattoo artist fleeing the Japanese mafia and a turf war between Vikorn and an army general heightens the intensity even further. The author has created one sophisticated novel full of marvellous characters, set in an intoxicating décor and told in a gripping manner. Definitely not a novel for the faint at heart, there is brutality and sexuality throughout and Bangkok's sleazy side is rather exploited to its maximum. Unfortunately being a sequel, the plotting seemed familiar and thus rather predictable in many ways, maybe if the prequel wasn`t still fresh in my mind, I would have a different opinion. I am looking forward to its sequel " Bangkok Haunts", but this time I will wait awhile before reading it
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This is the 2nd of the series and I was tired by the end. It needed editing as the at times excessive details made me skip to get going. Fascinating locale but it ignores the reality of sexual slavery.
avid_reader14VA More than 1 year ago
Highly graphic images of the seedier part of Thai culture. Burdett spins a good tale though totally believable if you ever experienced Soi Cowboy, Pat Pong or Soi Nana. If not it'll be a journey into what you only thought existed in the underbelly of Bangkok and beyond.
beachpolly More than 1 year ago
I am going to buy the next ones in this series.
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QPhage More than 1 year ago
I read this book not realizing it was a sequel, and it was still fantastic. Burdett explores the sex industry in such a positive manner, highlighting it's benefits in society and for the women working in the industry. He depicts and interesting juxtaposition between the red light districts in Bangkok, and then in the United States (Texas, Las Vegas, and Washington DC). The rules that applied in the U.S. that were completely alien to a working girl from Bangkok, and the type of clientele each attracted. It was fascinating to read about the different expectations of the farang (white men) and the Thai men, the differences in how they treated and what they expected of a prostitute. The book interlaces the story with a corrupt police force, working to encourage the existence of the red light districts, and ultimately working with moral integrity against the corrupt military. For me, the legalities were a bit to exaggerated and over the top, distracting me from the story, but it does make for a fast and interesting read.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Burdett brings back to life Euroasian Thai detective Sonchai in this eagerly awaited sequel to Bangkok 8. This time the plot is even more bizarre and the main characters even wackier. To ex-pats living in Thailand this book has allready achieved cult status.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this very much for its intelligence and worldly cynicism. My only (slight) criticism is the way the author wears his Buddhism on his sleave. I have nothing against Buddhism, but the constant references to character's past lives, for example, is a little tiresome. Still, very well worth reading.