Faint-hearted beware

2008-10-02 08:05

This is the third outing for Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep and that alone will be quite enough of a recommendation for those who encountered his earlier appearances in Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo.

Sonchai is a Thai Buddhist cop and, rather like the late Michael Dibdin's character Aurelio Zen, he has to contend with a society and a police force where corruption has become institutionalised. Thereafter any such comparison ends. Sonchai operates in a world with totally different reference points to the West and his responses to it are conditioned by his Buddhist beliefs. Author John Burdett's skill lies in getting under the skin of this world and rendering it familiar and believable, even when introducing supernatural elements taken for granted in Thai culture. Much of this is achieved by Sonchai's first-person narration in which he directly addresses the foreign reader, frequently wrong-footing cultural stereotyping.

Bangkok Haunts is full of ghosts, imagined and apparently real. When Sonchai receives a snuff movie in the post he also receives a major shock - the person who dies is a former lover. Sonchai's inquiry into her death leads not only to the most exclusive club in Bangkok but to the backstreets of Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Solving the crime finds Sonchai having to juggle various allegiances - not least to his boss, police commissioner Vikorn, a crime lord in his own right - while being attentive to his pregnant wife and helping out at the bar of his mother's brothel.

Burdett's thrillers are not for the faint-hearted, as there's sex and violence aplenty. But his writing style is way beyond the norm for the genre (think Graham Greene on acid) and Sonchai's likeable humanity - laced with ironic observations on the world in which he lives - is never far from sight.

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