Dan Katz reviews Bangkok 8 and the recently published Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett
Just at the point when I become sick to death of standardised, dull US detective stories and their badly-written British counterparts something comes along to cheer me up: Sonchai Jitleecheep, a Thai detective who is also a flawed and extremely ambivalent character
The important thing about noir crime is to put a person who already has lots of problems into a situation where they have little room for manoeuvre. Squeeze them and see what happens. Sonchai has a lot to contend with. For a start he is a Buddhist, so he already has a peculiar conscience. Then his immediate boss is a Grade A gangster and his mother runs a brothel.
In the first book his partner (and soul brother) is killed by drug criminals; by the second Sonchai is himself part-owner of the brothel. Sonchai has to negotiate a path on which he will become as little damaged — physically and otherwise — as is possible.
Running through these books is a nice, understated, ironic humour — a million miles from most crime literature coming out of the US. It is a credit to the British author.
The setting allows the author to meditate a little about the clash between Thai society and the west. In both books the west appears in the guise of the CIA: these macho men are baffled and uncomprehending of Thai society, but they are also mere obstacles for Sonchai to swerve round.