Sonchai Jitpleecheep is the introspective half-breed cop who stars in John Burdett’s four novels of crime in Bangkok. Despite numerous temptations and opportunities to stray, he prides himself on his integrity (a Western virtue not nearly as straightforward in the East.) “More than ten years in the Royal Thai Police and I’ve committed no major crime, nor even a minor one as far as I can recall. (I’m not including smoking dope; sometimes the law is wrong.)”
In Burdett’s latest (and purportedly last) of the four, “The Godfather of Kathmandu,” Jitpleecheep is tempted yet again; and he maintains he is still on the high road, if you discount his minor role in securing $40 million of Tibetan smack for his boss. No one writes of temptation like Burdett and no place has more of it than Bangkok.
“Kathmandu” opens with the death of a famous Hollywood B-movie director in a squalid whore hotel in the notorious Cowboy district of Bangkok. After many investigatory twists and turns, the case appears to be just another suicide on a day of suicides – but not for Jitpleecheep, a sort of Thai Columbo: “As far as the world is concerned, two unrelated suicides, one a diminutive Japanese jeweler, the other a fantastically outsized American movie director, happened to occur within hours of each other on the same night in Bangkok. What else is new? But I had to solve the case, didn’t I.” And so he does.
Along the way his young son is killed in a car accident, his wife leaves him to grieve in a rural nunnery of sorts, he falls for the irresistible tantric sex skills of a Tibetan refugee in Kathmandu, he submits to a heroin smuggling “Doctor’s” mantra, and he smokes as much weed as he surreptitiously can. It’s tough to be an honest cop in Thailand…and a Buddhist to boot. Jitpleecheep always tries to find the hope in something, even if it is only likely to come in some reincarnation down the road, but “that’s the trouble with relentless optimism: it leads to suicide.”
Although his plots are as convoluted as the streets and rivers of Bangkok, Burdett’s characters are a diverse, complex lot who find themselves adrift among a sea of others like them. Jitpleecheep’s assistant Lek, for example, is a katoey, “a transsexual who has not yet scraped together the courage or the funds for the final op.” But his sexual orientation helps open doors that the hetero, half-farang (Caucasian) Jitpleecheep doesn’t even know were there.
Perhaps the most intriguing character is Jitpleechee’s “boss, mentor, and surrogate father” Police Colonel Vikorn. His control of much of Bangkok’s drug traffic and prostitution provides Burdett with a practical voice to pontificate at times about the hypocrisy and appetites of the West.
“What’s wrong with trafficking in heroin?” Vikorn asks. “Why should the pharmaceutical industry take everything? They want to ban all the fun drugs at the same time as turning every human experience into a treatable disease. Drugs for sleeping, drugs for waking, drugs for peeing, drugs for erections…More than a hundred thousand people die in the U.S. every year from prescribed drugs. That’s more fatalities in a month than smack kills in a decade.”
With a paternalistic tyrant for a boss, a personal life falling apart, corrupt colleagues, and a Buddhist conscience nagging him at every turn, it is no wonder that Jitpleecheep reaches for a joint now and then to shave the peaks and valleys. But his daily trafficking with the prostitutes, dealers, street cooks, monks, and motorbike taxi drivers in the city get him the clues that help him solve the tough cases. He is a Thai everyman policing a city that doesn’t want policing. When Vikorn comments that the big drug deal is “now or never,” the Buddhist Jitpleecheep replies: “we don’t have never…only now.”
If “The Godfather of Kathmandu” reflects a kind of Buddhism on speed, it also has moments of lyricism, tenderness, and atmosphere. Amid the Bangkok filth, traffic, and sweaty mass of humanity, Burdett shines his narrative light on the corner wat with its incense and reverence, or the tree shrine to Ganesh, the elephant god, in a forest next to a river. “The rhododendron here are the forest,” he notes. “It’s like being in an oil painting that is all about abundance: a million mauve, crimson, and white blossoms, like bursts of awareness in a dark age.” Like I said, this guy can write.
John Burdett’s Bangkok Quartet will stand as something a good deal more than many other crime serials if only because he brings us more than crimes to solve and the heroes that solve them. These novels look into our souls; and though they find all the savagery and mayhem other novels find, they also find our complexity and ambiguity. As Jitpleecheep reminds Lek when he is urging him to pursue justice to deter and reform criminals, “That’s one of the advantages of Buddhism: it’s not results-oriented. There’s no way you can ever work on someone else’s karma, only your own.” Perhaps our own police, judges, legislators, and voters should spend some time in Bangkok.