Sunday 24 June 2007

Crime

Thai Takeout

Published: June 24, 2007

Who knew that “Bangkok 8″ and ?Bangkok Tattoo? were just the warm-up acts? As vibrantly as those sizzling thrillers captured the exotic flavor of crime and corruption in Thailand?s capital city, John Burdett’s BANGKOK HAUNTS (Knopf, $24.95) opens up new avenues of awe. Even Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the urbane detective with the Royal Thai Police who narrates the bizarre stories in this series, is struck dumb by the sadistic snuff film that sets the latest gaudy plot in motion.

Jerry Bauer/Random House

John Burdett

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?Few crimes make us fear for the evolution of our species,? this devout Buddhist observes. ?I am watching one right now.? To add to his despair, the woman being strangled in the film is Damrong, a prostitute who was the love of his life when she worked in the Old Man?s Club, the brothel Sonchai operates with his mother. Like others who succumbed to Damrong’s charms, he’s still in thrall to this fascinating creature, who returns in spirit as a sexually voracious wraith who will continue to haunt him if he doesn’t bring her killer to justice ? and do something about this new development in the city?s notorious pornography industry. Daunting enough, the task is complicated by his cheerfully corrupt superior?s eagerness to branch out from his methamphetamine business by getting into the porn racket.

The ambiguous moral hemisphere Sonchai inhabits can be downright dizzying, but since he observes the rites and rituals of his native culture as conscientiously as he consults a professional colleague from the F.B.I., this self-described half-caste is well positioned to negotiate all paths to enlightenment. Girding himself to outwit a vengeful ghost or a hired killer comes as naturally as offering good-luck lotus blossoms to the Buddha above the cash register at the family brothel.

?You live in a magic-ravaged land,? Sonchai’s F.B.I. contact tells him. But the wonder of Burdett’s hallucinatory brand of Southeast Asian magic ? which puts his novels in range of the fabulous Yellowthread Street procedurals William Marshall set in Hong Kong and of Colin Cotterill?s fanciful mysteries featuring the Laotian coroner-sleuth Dr. Siri Paiboun ; is that this spooky stuff is manifested in a real world governed by what Sonchai calls “functional barbarism.” The author, who practiced criminal law in Asia and clearly knows his territory, has a fine skill for distilling the morbid beauty (not to mention the grotesque humor) in scenes of everyday misery. But in the end, death-by-ghost still seems a step up from a real-life peasant existence in which children eat dirt and are occasionally stomped to death by elephants.