Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’s a real appeal in reading a novel with a distinctive, exotic setting. It can also be engaging to experience that setting and context from an ‘insider’s’ point of view. That perspective allows the reader to go ‘behind the scenes’ in a place and see what the tourists never see. It also gives the reader a window into a culture and way of thinking. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight today on John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, the first of his Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels.
Sonchai and his partner Pichai Apiradee have been on surveillance, tailing a Mercedes, when their quarry briefly gets away from them. By the time they find the car, its occupant William Bradley is dead. A first look at the crime scene shows that Bradley was trapped in his car with poisonous snakes and most likely died from their bites. Pichai manages to open one of the car doors, but before he can get away, one of the snakes attacks him, leaving him with a fatal bite.
Sonchai is determined to avenge Pinchai’s death. Not only were they police partners, but they were ‘soul brothers’ as well. They’d known each other for years, and Sonchai looked up to and respected Pinchai. So he has very personal reasons for wanting to solve Bradley’s murder.
Sonchai is soon contacted by the American Embassy in the form of the FBI legal attaché and his assistant, Tod Rosen and Jack Nape, respectively. Bradley was a US Marine, so they have their own reasons for wanting to investigate his death. They’re especially concerned because they’ve already learned that Bradley was interested in jade and might have been involved in the illegal jade trade. If so, this matter will have to be handled delicately, since that sort of story would be embarrassing to the Marines and the US government.
Along with Rosen and Nape, FBI Special Agent Kimberly Jones is sent from Washington to Bangkok to investigate the Bradley murder. She and Sonchai work together to find out who killed the victim and why. As they begin to look into the case, they discover that there are several possibilities too.
For one thing, it’s soon obvious that Bradley had a real interest in jade. There are some dangerous people involved in that trade, and they might have had a reason to want to make an example of him. For another, Bradley had a personal life, too. He was seen in several places with a mysterious and exotic woman who could very well know an awful lot about this murder. So one of the tasks that Sonchai and Jones face is trying to find her. There’s also the fact of Bradley’s history. That too could have played a role in his death.
Sonchai uses his deep knowledge of Bangkok and its people to track down information, and Jones uses her expertise and FBI resources to piece together what might have happened. In the end, they find out exactly who killed Bradley and why. It turns out that this murder has a very different kind of motive to what you might think…
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the story takes place in and around Bangkok, so readers get a real sense of the city. It’s a very beautiful, vibrant, ancient, complex and sometimes squalid place. Bangkok isn’t the kind of place that can be properly captured in a ‘picture postcard’ description, and Burdett doesn’t attempt that.
Another important element in this story is the character of Sonchai. He is the son of a former bar girl who’s now embarking on a new career. He is also part farang (foreigner). He and his mother Nong have traveled, most particularly to Germany and France, with some of Nong’s romantic partners. So he’s also more cosmopolitan than you might expect ‘just a cop’ to be. At the same time, Sonchai loves Thailand and its people. His outlook is most particularly influenced though by his deep commitment to Buddhism. In fact, his Buddhist beliefs are the reason for which he became a police officer.
The Buddhist tradition plays a major role in many Thai people’s world views, and Burdett gives the reader a look at the way Buddhists view life and humans’ place in it, and a look at the Buddhist spiritual tradition. It’s really much more than just a set of rituals; for observant Buddhists it’s a way of life. And Sonchai is committed to that tradition, so understanding him means understanding at least some of what he believes.
Understanding the Buddhist/Thai way of thinking and looking at life also helps in understanding the way the story unfolds. Readers who are accustomed to ‘typical’ Western police procedurals will immediately notice that this story is different. It weaves back and forth between the present case and Sonchai’s past since from the Buddhist perspective, the past, the present and the future are all related. Burdett makes it clear when the various events happen, but readers who prefer a chronologically ordered story will notice this. The story also integrates a certain amount of spirituality and mysticism. Readers who prefer prosaic solutions to mysteries will be relieved to know that the case isn’t solved by visions, dreams or religious revelations. But Buddhist spirituality permeates both Sonchai’s world view and the novel. As he himself says:
‘You have to remember we’re Buddhist.’
That message is clear throughout the novel.
The story is told from Sonchai’s point of view, as if told to an ‘outsider,’ and there are some asides to the reader:
‘We do not look on death the way you do, farang. My closest colleagues grasp my arm and one or two embrace me. No one says sorry. Would you be sorry about a sunset?’
The story is told mostly in the present tense, although Burdett uses the past tense to distinguish the current storyline from other events. Readers who prefer the use of the past tense will notice this.
The mystery itself is in a sense ‘impossible but not really impossible.’ How did the snakes get into the car without Bradley noticing them? And why didn’t they attack him when he first got into the car? More to the point, why did they attack so viciously, when most snakes would as soon avoid humans?
Bangkok 8 is a distinctly Bangkok story told by a uniquely Bangkok/Thai police officer. It features an unusual sort of mystery and a storytelling technique that fits the setting and context. It also has what in my opinion (so feel free to disagree) is a very well-written and compelling first line:
‘The African American Marine in the grey Mercedes will soon die of bites from Naja siamensis, but we don’t know that yet, Pichai and I (the future is impenetrable, says the Buddha).’
But what’s your view? Have you read Bangkok 8? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 29 September/Tuesday 30 September – Murder at Honeychurch Hall – Hannah Dennison
Monday 6 October/Tuesday 7 October – Ice Run – Steve Hamilton
Monday 13 October/Tuesday 14 October – Bitter River – Julia Keller