Monday, December 26, 2011

Bangkok 8, by John Burdett

Boundaries are at issue in Bangkok 8, by John Burdett (2003)—transgressed boundaries, American vs. Thai boundaries, colonial boundaries, sexual boundaries, racial boundaries, criminal boundaries. This murder mystery set in modern Bangkok and narrated by a half-American, half-Thai detective who is ridiculed by his colleagues for having scruples, has one of the most terrifying crime scenes I’ve encountered—it involves baby cobras, a boa constrictor, dry ice, and a Mercedes limo. American imperialism and its consequences are another issue. The years of the Vietnamese conflict transformed Bangkok, which became a self-made pleasure dome for American soldiers on leave. In the modern-day Bangkok sexual tourism remains a major source of income for the city. The Vietnamese war also helped create a new population of Asian Americans who are always, or at least in the case of our narrator, at some sort of odds with the rest of the population.

The narrator, Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, loses his partner early in the book, and one wonders whether their close friendship is the reason he avoids falling into a relationship with an American CIA operative who is attracted to him. She’s been assigned to the murder investigation because the murder victim was a former American soldier, and for other reasons

I was never comfortable with this novel. It has the tone of tough-guy noirism, but its protagonist, who on occasion you might compare to Philip Marlowe, never makes clear exactly where he stands. He’s elusive and slippery. What you do realize is that his strong sense of virtue and of moralism won’t allow him to let the murder go unsolved, even when his life is at risk.

The novel imbues its scene and story with claustrophobia, from the tiny apartment where the narrator lives, to the sex shows, to the jade shop. And this is claustrophobia not simply of a spatial sort. Everyone is watching everyone else. No one moves or acts without someone else’s being aware. Corruption, human exploitation, deception are rampant. Bangkok in this novel suggests the Los Angeles of Blade Runner (1983; dir. Ridley Scott).

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