By Rob Brunet
After moving to Bangkok and complaining for a few years that I hadn’t yet jumped on a plane to visit him, my best friend told me to read John Burdett so I could learn what all the fuss was about. Bangkok 8 hooked me immediately. Burdett writes some of darkest and funniest crime fiction I’ve encountered. And he wraps it in an understanding of Eastern culture most Westerners will never gain. When The Thrill Begins secured me an interview, I was buzzed.When John Burdett agreed to get on the phone for a conversation, I was exhilarated.
Burdett’s brilliant angle is embodied in his protagonist, Sonchai Jitpleecheep—a failed Buddhist monk turned police detective. Sonchai is half farang, which is what Thais call Westerners. His mother is a madame who operates a brothel called the Old Man’s Club. She’s protected by her investor, Police Colonel Vikorn who, in turn, runs most of the drugs in Thailand not controlled by the army. Let’s just say Sonchai sits pretty at the centre of it all.
Speaking in first person and often straight to the reader, Burdett uses Sonchai to explore the conflict between light and dark that defines human existence. Along the way, he deals with murder, lust, corruption, family, torture, prostitution, gender angst, love, and reincarnation in terms as brutal and honest as you’ll ever find mixed on the page. Naturally, it involves a lot of belly laughs.
Finding his way to Bangkok via the Philippines after a successful career as a Hong Kong lawyer, Burdett became fascinated by the Thai ability to see any given situation from multiple perspectives simultaneously. It shows up in the way Sonchai can view a murder scene from the point of view of the victim and perpetrator and the law and morality and rationality all at once. It helps that the only absolute truth is nirvana, which can’t be defined. Besides, karma and reincarnation have a way of sorting things out in the end.
Burdett has fun pulling at the fabric of Western confusion. A delicious example of this is his female FBI investigator who falls in love with Sonchai’s sidekick, Lek—a katoey, or ladyboy. She grapples with whether helping him pay for his sex change will make her a lesbian. As Sonchai says in The Godfather of Kathmandu, “I fear there is little in your culture, farang, to provide guidance on this conundrum.”
For all our Western progress on gender issues, we’re at least a thousand years behind the East. Buddhism makes it simple: there’s a third gender. They may not have the right to same-sex marriage in Thailand, but like just about everything else that’s officially illegal—like drugs and prostitution—there’s not a lot of judgement going on. There’s the law, and then there’s dharma, or truth. Guess which one matters.
If all of this sounds miles apart from a police procedural, it’s because that’s merely the scaffold on which Burdett hangs his stories. What he’s really after is exploring Western foibles from an Eastern perspective. Still, he’s got the cop side of things covered. The son of a policeman and having practiced some criminal law, he’s got enough grounding in police practice to know what he’s talking about. Besides, policing—like all things official in Thailand—is more than a little corrupt.
He shared a couple stories to illustrate the point. The first involved Thai police driving vehicles by the dozen across the border into Laos, selling them on the black market, then reporting them stolen back home and collecting insurance payouts. Right, the police.
The second is a gem that took place in the 1950s opium trade when the police discovered the army was importing huge tonnage from then-Burma (Myanmar) into Chang Mai in northern Thailand. Upon being confronted, the army refused to turn it over to their drug-peddling competitors—the police—but agreed they would allow the cops to dump the massive load in the sea. Digging into the story a decade later, a journalist got at the truth. “Yes, we dumped it in the sea,” the police said. “There just happened to be a ship in the way.”
It’s the kind of story that would never find it’s way into Thai newspapers today. The media is completely government controlled—and completely ignored—by Thais. Instead, they rely on gossip and social media to stay informed. They know everything that’s going on—the official, the unofficial, the seedy, and the sordid. The intrusion of technology into what was until recently essentially a feudal medieval mindset has produced a populace who are incredibly switched on when it comes to what takes place inside their country.
It can be frustrating for a Westerner to try to reason with a Thai about morality and what’s good for them. Whatever our personal perspective, we are trained to come at things from a position of truth—and truth is what’s right, isn’t it? Meanwhile, chances are we’re trying to win an argument with someone who has been practicing daily meditation since they were eight years old. Good luck with that.
Very few Thais read Burdett’s work. It’s not translated into their language, and that’s intentional. The laws in the country are so draconian that he could find himself in both civil and criminal court for writing what he does. And going to jail in Thailand is not part of the plan. Like everything else, though, there’s no real worry. Since his work isn’t published in Thai, it can’t reach most Thais. Ergo, as far as the authorities are concerned, it doesn’t really exist in Thailand, does it? See how that works?
In Burdett’s view, the Western mind is far less open than we like to imagine it to be. It’s theoretically open—we have democracy, however that gets expressed—but collectively, our openness doesn’t run deep. A truly open mind is deeply tolerant. The recent rise in the extreme right—its ability to take hold and move so many people in directions which would have been unthinkable a handful of years ago—speaks to how shallow and disposable our tolerance truly is.
It’s a theme Burdett plans to push further in the next instalment of Sonchai Jitpleecheep by sending him deep into Western territory. Until now, the stories have been set in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Nepal, and the French Riviera. He plans to use a Buddhist lens to probe the complete dislocation of the modern mind in Western materialist society.
John Burdett and his Thai wife now share their time between Thailand and the south of France—a privilege he is quick to acknowledge. It helps him explore the conflict between Eastern and Western perspective that drives his work.
Dark. Light. Truth. Perspective. Horror. Comedy. Burdett has given this reader more than a few reasons to finally jump on a plane to Bangkok.
To learn more about John Burdett’s most recent novel, click on the cover below:
Rob Brunet writes character-driven crime fiction laced with dark humor. His debut novel STINKING RICH was listed on Crimespree Magazine’s Book Picks for 2014 and named one of the year’s top debuts by Mystery People. Brunet’s short crime fiction appears in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Crimespree, Noir Nation, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, and numerous anthologies. He loves the bush, beaches, and bonfires, and teaches creative writing at George Brown College in Toronto, where he lives with his wife, daughter, and son.
To learn more about STINKING RICH, click on the cover below:
Previously in Writers’ Passport: