Two police officers watch a Mercedes they’ve been surveilling halt by the side of the road. They walk up to it and notice that the doors have been jammed so that those inside cannot escape. When they look inside, they see “an enormous python” wrapped around the neck of an African-American marine. Pichai, one of the cops, shoots the python, but when he opens the door to help the marine, dozens of ya ba (crystal meth)-fuelled cobras bite him. “One peeps between buttons on the black man’s shirt, which is alive with undulations.”
So begins a crime series set in the neon-lit streets of Bangkok. In British lawyer-turned-writer John Burdett’s first-person series of books featuring the half-Thai, half-American detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep (who’s also the unfortunate Pichai’s partner), the lurid side of the city comes into full bloom. Sex, money and murder – the unholy trifecta – converge on a landscape that is lit up by horny tourists, jade smugglers and drug-lord monks.
There is an element of voyeuristic fantasy in the many deaths: if the meth-fuelled cobras weren’t enough, a CIA agent is flayed alive and murdered, his penis severed for good measure, the murder of one of Sonchai’s old flames has been recorded into a snuff film, and a rich American’s skull is cut open and his brains eaten, a la Hannibal Lecter. The contrasts are evident: monks and prostitutes are both commonplace, Buddhist shrines sit comfortably inside go-go bars, and ghosts come back to haunt the living.
An eclectic cast
Burdett, who moved to Bangkok after earning “a small fortune” in Hong Kong practising law, revels in shocking the (Western) reader. His cast of characters is eclectic, each more unusual than the other. There’s Vikorn, a police colonel who has his fingers in every pie of the illicit trade and is Sonchai’s guardian angel; Sonchai’s mother, an ex-bargirl who now owns a bar with Vikorn; Lek, Sonchai’s transgender assistant; Chanya, Sonchai’s wife, a former bargirl who becomes a nun after the accidental death of their child; and the army general Zinna, a constant thorn in Vikorn’s plans for underworld domination.
Like most modern detectives in fiction, Sonchai is the odd one out in this Thai universe. Born to an American soldier, who he wonders about “almost daily”, Sonchai has been raised by a host of “surrogate fathers” across the world.
His relative fluency in English means he is the police liaison as well as chief negotiator for Vikorn’s shady deals. Despite serving a corrupt boss in a police force that is mired in graft, he refuses to take bribes, the result of a vow given to a Buddhist abbot. Together with Pichai, he murdered a ya ba dealer in his youth, and their mothers put them in a monastery. “After six months of mosquitoes and meditation, remorse had gouged our hearts. Six months after that the abbot told us we were going to mend our karma by becoming cops.”
Unusually for a crime series, the supernatural sits hand-in-hand with the temporal in these books. Burdett incorporates a Thai predilection for ghosts just as in real life. In 2017, the Thai police were brought in to investigate a female phi, a ghost, in eastern Thailand after requests from local residents. “The people who believe in the rumor are genuinely scared,” a police officer said of the incident.
A local news website lists all the ghosts that ”inhabit” the country. Bangkok itself is a city full of shrines to spirits of the dead; “to listen to Thais, you would likely conclude that the undead outnumber the living by a hundred to one,” suggests a scientist in Bangkok Haunts, the third in the series. Sonchai himself is haunted by the ghost of an old flame; in a hallucinatory passage reminiscent of an acid trip, Sonchai has sex with the ghost.
Thailand’s sex industry
There are few moments when the fetishisation of the “Orient” peaks more than in conversations about Thailand’s sex industry. In 2014, author Patricia Park wrote about the source of this fetishisation: “Perhaps the biggest factor sealing the image of the sexualized Asian female as we know it in the United States was the US military presence in Asia, beginning in World War II and continuing through the Korean and Vietnam War.”
Park argues that although the American soldier-Asian woman coupling may have begun from commerce, there’s a second narrative of colonisation as well. “The American GI – representing a first world power with first world resources and privileges – colonizes the Asian female, who comes from a place of poverty, weakness, and everything else often associated with the ‘third world’. The Asian female sex worker could be read as another version of the ‘dragon lady’ – a seductress capitalizing on the demand for sex.”
Burdett, on the other hand, asks us to consider the sex industry from a different, individualistic perspective. In Bangkok Tattoo, the second in the series, Sonchai chides his (Western) reader for harbouring “childish notions” about Thai sex workers being “downtrodden sex-slave victims of a chauvinistic male-dominated culture”. He writes, “These are all country girls, tough as water buffalo, wild as swans, who can’t believe how much they can make by providing to polite, benevolent, guilt-ridden, rich, condom-conscious farang [foreigner] exactly the same service they would otherwise have to provide free without protection to rough drunken whoremongering husbands in their home villages.”
It’s obvious Burdett’s sympathises lie with the sex workers rather than the tourists for whom Thailand is synonymous with carnal pleasure. “The truth is that prostitution fulfils many functions. It is a substitute for social welfare, medical insurance, student loans, a profitable hobby as well as being the path to that wealth which many modern women expect from life,” Sonchai says in Bangkok 8, the first book. The detective pities Western discomfort with sex work despite partaking of its pleasures. For Sonchai, the West consumes its own fantasies – a running theme through the six books in the series.
If Bangkok appears to be a supernatural sexed-up Las Vegas where anything goes from Burdett’s writings, that does not take away from his attempts to break down the nuances of Thai society. In a moving passage that describes migration into the city, he writes, “Men with iron muscles and the dogged heroism of unmechanised agricultural labor, women with bodies ravaged by continual pregnancies, they possessed in full measure all the guts, all the enthusiasm, all the naivete, all the hope, all the desperation necessary to make it in the big city.”
For him, Bangkok is like most metropolises – a city of dreams – and he realises people will do what it takes to escape chronic poverty. Burdett has little to say about Thai politics and its monarchy, however. He skips over the 2013-14 Thai political crisis and protests, noting he had finished writing The Bangkok Asset, Sonchai’s sixth outing, before the military coup in May 2014, as he says in the author’s note. Burdett’s novels haven’t been translated into Thai either.
A grey perspective
The Sonchai novels can be difficult to slot: a British immigrant writing about Thailand from the perspective of a (half) Thai officer. Sonchai’s exploration of his city’s seedier sides is an invitation to the reader (even if it is the Western reader who is being addressed) to look beyond Thailand’s beaches and the sex industry. As Burdett said in an interview, “The main thing is to rid one’s mind of stereotypes by absorbing as much street-real detail as possible.” It’s clear Burdett wants his readers to know a different side to the country. At the same time, one cannot argue for the authenticity of the voice. It’s something Burdett indicates himself, writing in his author’s note to Bangkok 8 that “a novelist is an opportunist”. He does not suggest Sonchai’s voice is an authentic Thai voice.
As the novels progress, however, one senses that Burdett falls into his own trap of creating a universe where anything goes. If the first few books in the series are a phantasmagoria of sex, crime, death and religion, the others stretch the imagination even within this established state of suspended disbelief. The Bangkok Asset, in particular, becomes a parody of classified CIA experiments on human soldiers, while in The Godfather of Kathmandu, the tantric sex and telepathy force the reader to wonder what is going on.
But Burdett’s strengths lie in his little nuances on geographies within a city. Bangkok comes alive not just in the passages describing its seamier and seedier sides, but also in the descriptions about middle-class life, and what the city represents to those who migrate here. In presenting a contrast between western fantasies and Sonchai’s more nuanced worldview, he raises several questions in the reader’s mind. Consider the epigraph to Bangkok Tattoo, which borrows from Borges and Nietzsche: “The wheel of certain Hindustani religions seems more reasonable to me,” writes Borges in The Immortal, while Nietzsche asks, “What is the meaning of morality?”