Bangkok Haunts, By John Burdett, Knopf, 305 pp., $24.95
Sonchai Jitpleecheep , John Burdett's flexible, morally solid embodiment of the modern man, navigates particularly treacherous waters in the spellbinding "Bangkok Haunts," his third thriller with Sonchai at its core. To conjure Burdett's unique blend of garishness and gravitas, imagine a Conrad novel transformed into a video game.
Sonchai is a Royal Thai policeman with a big heart and a mind open every which way. At the start of this darkest of Burdett's Bangkok fictions, he views a snuff film that makes him "fear for the evolution of our species."
Our intrepid hero dogs the spoor of that film to its origins because it "stars" the love of his life, Damrong , formerly a prostitute in the brothel owned by Nong , Sonchai's mother. His quest sends him through much of Thailand and its more venal neighbor, Cambodia. He uncovers the secrets of the Parthenon Club, a high-end redoubt for men of wealth and toxic taste, and comes to understand the ground good and evil share in the supernatural bonding of Damrong and her brother, the assassin-Buddhist monk Gamon , a.k.a. Phra Titanaka .
Burdett is equally good with male and female characters. His portrayal of Sonchai gains depth with each Bangkok novel (though "Bangkok Tattoo" was thin compared with the series' great debut, "Bangkok Eight"), his apprehension of women ever more nuanced.
To avenge Damrong, Sonchai must find the lowlife who killed her. The search pushes him up the pornography food chain to financially powerful vermin, the Khmer Rouge, and a culture of poverty, incest, and prostitution that Burdett suggests is particularly intertwined in Thai society. "Bangkok Haunts," while celebrating an Asian sensuality at odds with some Western notions of morality, is an angry, purgative book. Its characters are scintillating; even more powerful is Burdett's depiction of an economy with prostitution as a fundament.
"The ancients understood very well that men need sex more urgently than women," Sonchai muses. "It was natural, therefore, that this imbalance should be redressed by means of cash, which hitherto nobody had any use for. Later, of course, whores found other things to sell, and many were reincarnated as lawyers, doctors, dentists, merchant bankers, presidents, sweetshop owners, et cetera. Commerce was born, and war became just a tad less fashionable. Hey, if it wasn't for prostitution, the human race would never have got beyond the siege of Troy. Many haven't, of course."
In "Haunts," Sonchai lives with Chanya , his pregnant wife and a former worker in his mother's brothel; looks to Nong for advice; works with and below the radar of his boss, the cunning, opportunistic Colonel Vikorn ; enlists the help of Kimberley Jones , the FBI agent from "Eight"; faces down the scary, murderous "invisible men" behind Damrong's murder; and bonds deeply with Lek , his police associate, who is eager to become a woman and is taking the chemicals to effect that. To complicate matters, Jones -- a tad butch, and way American -- falls in love with Lek, gender ambiguity notwithstanding.
With Sonchai's relationships as its backbone, this is a book of many currents. It's about differences between West and East, intersections of the sexes, and the relation of man and beast (elephants loom large here, and they're not cute).
Shadowing Sonchai on his trip to the heart of darkness is haunting indeed. The lesson? In Bangkok, things are less what they seem than anywhere else.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.