Murder and Buddhism Mix in July/August Book Sense 76 Pick

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John Burdett wanted to capture a place that hadn't been explored all that much in previous detective thrillers. "I thought Bangkok really hadn't been done the way Los Angeles, New York, and Paris had been done," he told BTW. His original intention was to write a relatively conventional book. Early in his research process for Bangkok 8 (Knopf), a July/August Book Sense 76 pick, the author sat down with a Thai police officer to get a feel for law enforcement in Thailand. But before that meeting even took place, Burdett suddenly ended up doing other research that proved to be invaluable. He spoke, most specifically, with Bangkok sex workers in various bars. "They revealed to me the depth and strength of their character, their heroism, and the way they helped their families put their siblings through school," Burdett said. "Little by little, I realized that the story was as much about them as about law enforcement, so I ended up writing an unusual kind of mystery thriller."

Burdett's third book centers around Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Thai detective and devout Buddhist with a sordid past. Early on, Sonchai's partner is killed when the two cops arrive at a truly bizarre murder scene. Indeed, the way an African-American Marine sergeant is murdered inside his Mercedes by a carload of drugged-up cobras and one massive python is pretty unusual. Sonchai attempts to find the perpetrator; in the process, he plunges into a somewhat hallucinogenic world of drugs (especially the widely abused yaa baa, or methamphetamine), sleaze, and corruption (all of which he's quite familiar with already), while managing to maintain his allegiance to Buddhism's Eightfold Path. ("He realizes he's more Buddhist than he wants to admit because he doesn't ultimately want to take revenge for the death of his partner," Burdett noted.)

Sonchai is an intriguing character, and so is his mother, a former prostitute whose profession had allowed her and little Sonchai trips to Paris, Berlin, and the U.S. "His mother is an enormously strong woman and is modeled on a friend of mine -- yet I haven't told that friend yet," Burdett laughed. And Sonchai's father, like the fathers of many 30-something Thais, was an American GI. "Bangkok was a destination for R&R during the Vietnam War, so I wanted to get that in because the war is very much part of modern Thai history. Thailand supported America, and the American Air Force had a huge base in the northern part of the country, so it's all part of the background."

As Burdett's pungent prose proves, Sonchai speaks near-perfect English, yet he thinks with an Asian mindset. "The way he doesn't really believe in logic and the way he's continually cross-referencing to his spiritual mind, his superstitions, and his mother's superstitions -- that's all very Asian."

Then there's FBI agent Kimberly Jones, who often thinks in a rigid, by-the-book "Western way," Burdett said. "She's the total opposite of Sonchai, in my mind. You've got them actually highlighting and contrasting each other all the way through -- contrast is always good in a book. Their underlying differences have to do partly with the concept of time. Thai people, even today, are not really that interested in time. It's not unusual to make a date with a Thai and he or she will turn up a day or two late! Whereas Kimberly's whole life is structured by time." The contrast between Sonchai and Kimberly is a prime example of the way the East and West clash -- and coexist -- in this work.

Burdett said that no books he had read directly influenced Bangkok 8's mystery-novel structure, although he did mention one novel that inspired his portrayal of a foreign detective. "As far as I know, the first English writer who had the audacity to put himself in the skin of a totally foreign detective was Martin Cruz Smith in Gorky Park, which is a masterpiece. But his character is a Russian militiaman. Martin sustains incredible detail about the USSR, shows humor and wit, and reveals the character of his protagonist in a book that's almost twice as long as mine."

Burdett, too, did extensive research, but not only about Bangkok. "It's one of those cities in developing countries where something like 50 percent of its people have only recently arrived there, and who do not consider themselves belonging to Bangkok, but to their native villages in the north. So I spent time with people in those northern villages and got much deeper insight." And there's a reference to a country funeral in the beginning of the book that reveals something telling about Thai country life: "Thais love to party -- out in the country, especially," Burdett mentioned. "If someone dies, there's a traditional Buddhist ceremony during the day and then a huge party in the evening where everybody gets drunk and stoned."

Before he became a full-time author, Burdett, who lives in Hong Kong, was a lawyer for 12 years. Yet his work as an attorney didn't directly influence the way Bangkok 8 turned out. In fact, Burdett has "grave reservations about criminalizing anything that consenting adults decide to do, including prostitution and everything else."

Another interesting aspect of Bangkok 8 is the way the reader learns about murdered marine sergeant Bill Bradley, and his mysterious dealings with the precious gemstone jade. "His character in fact develops even though he dies in the beginning," Burdett said.

And the way the marine is killed definitely makes the novel open in a particularly striking way. The weird thing is that something like that could have actually happened, Burdett explained. "I was reading about the Vietnam War and learned that the Vietcong used snakes -- especially cobras -- quite extensively as a weapon against the Americans," Burdett continued. "Also, there's a short story by Truman Capote called 'Hand Carved Coffins' that was an inspiration. In it, snakes are used as a murder weapon."

In the two years Burdett spent writing Bangkok 8, he developed its plot gradually rather than planning it out carefully. "My stuff has to develop organically," he added. "I can't write to a plan. I don't like doing it that way because then I find the thing getting a little over-controlled, and that wasn't the atmosphere I was aiming for. Ultimately, I was aiming for something out-of-control." -- Jeff Perlah