Novel: Bangkok 8 by John Burdett

I’m an inexperienced reader of hard-boiled crime fiction, but I think John Burdett’s Bangkok 8 (2003) falls into that category. This one entertainingly cross-pollinates elements of police procedurals, murder mysteries, and international crime, as well as being an interesting study of intersecting cultures. The protagonist, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is a detective in Bangkok’s police district 8, and one of the few who refuses to succumb to the corruption and bribery of his position. Tasked by his supervisor to tail an American marine, Sonchai and his partner arrive just in time to find the marine murdered: trapped in his car with dozens of venomous snakes, which also manage to kill Sonchai’s partner. Sonchai sets out to solve the murder and avenge his partner’s death, in an investigation that entangles him with visiting FBI agents, drug smugglers, rich foreign businessmen, jade traders, and workers in the Thai sex industry.

Burdett’s contemporary Thailand is every bit as interesting and richly detailed, I think, as Paolo Bacigalupi’s future Thailand of The Windup Girl — a study in contrasting cultures, doing its best to get into the mindset of its region. Sonchai is a unique hero: crossbreed son of a prostitute, devout Buddhist, a man of integrity in a world with rules much, much different than our own. Burdett brings out these differences through his interactions with visiting Americans, notably FBI agent and unlikely love interest Kimberly Jones. The simple whodunit set-up evolves into much more: a how-done-it, a why-done-it, and a how-it-all-works in its particular corner of the world. Without dishing up easy answers, it paints a fascinating picture of criminal politics and power struggles between first- and third-world figures on a vivid international stage. Some of the mystery, unfortunately, is revealed in confessional infodump as the story winds down, and at times the transgressive subject matter feels like edginess for the sake of it. But overall I found it an effective international crime thriller, well written and unique.

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