Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007
Alfred A. Knopf / Random House
US First Edition Hardcover
308 Pages; $24.95
Publication Date: 06-05-2007
Date Reviewed: 06-12-2007
"Even emotional anguish is another misleading phenomenon," Sonchai Jitpleecheep tells us in John Burdett's latest novel, 'Bangkok Haunts'. Alas, that level of awareness is beyond Sonchai himself, and he could use some extra equipoise. Burdett, on the other hand, seems to have found his own version of that high state of being, at least when it comes to writing his strikingly original novels set in Bangkok. Voice carries all in fiction. Every book is a one-sided conversation, and the author who expects us to pay attention had best have a captivating means of expression. For John Burdett, that happens when he channels Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a devout Buddhist and Royal Thai Police detective. It pretty much does not matter what Sonchai says; his language is engaging, funny, intelligent and animated by a penetrating intelligence. But in creating his character, Burdett has managed to immerse himself and his readers in a world that is alien, foreign, familiar and compelling. Sonchai's vision of the world around him guarantees that the story will be as involving as the voice that tells it.
Sonchai starts the novel facing both his past and our uncertain future. "Few crimes make us fear for the evolution of our species. I am watching one right now." It's a snuff film, beautifully photographed, starring Damrong, a well-known, high-flying prostitute who once worked for Sonchai at The Old Man's Club, the bar and brothel he helps his mother run when he's not solving crimes. Damrong was not just a former employee. She was his lover, a woman who seemed to control his soul. It was the kind of relationship that often ends in suicide or murder, and Sonchai has never really left it behind. Nor will he be able to now that she's dead, since her ghost returns with sexual demands that she be avenged.
'Bangkok Haunts' is Burdett's best novel in the series. It's funnier and weirder, more imbued with ghosts than the previous works, which were both quite funny and included far more ghosts than the average noir thriller. But don’t let all this talk of ghosts lead you to believe that Burdett is writing anything that remotely resembles familiar supernatural horror. Burdett's novel is written from the perspective of a practicing Buddhist, who feels that ghosts are a part of everyday life. This is the most natural supernatural novel you'll ever read.
The plot in 'Bangkok Haunts' revolves around the big business of international pornography. He even includes an appendix in the form of a New York Times article that talks about how the biggest distributors of pornography are GM and Marriot Hotels. As Sonchai and Kimberley, the "hormone haunted manhunter" who has since become sadder and wiser, track the origin of the movie, Sonchai's superior in the Royal Thai Police force decides to enter the biz himself. Burdett has a delightful time upending just about every mystery trope and tradition you can imagine in 'Bangkok Haunts'. The cops are robbers and the forensic bombshells involve ghosts. Mystery fans who like their locations exotic and their action unusual will find great satisfaction.
Both ghosts and humor play a bigger role than in the previous Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels. The humor often spins from the language that Burdett gets out of his Buddhist protagonist. Sonchai's vision of the world is a matter-of-fact inversion of Western views, and the results are consistently hilarious, even if they’re often simultaneously quite grotesque. At one point, Sonchai's pregnant girlfriend, Chanya, offers to watch the horrific video with him because she knows that it will upset him, but he asks her not to and she acquiesces. "Neither of us wants an argument, and Chanya has grown too used to serenity to squander it on something trivial like a snuff movie."
Interestingly enough, for a book filled with wall-to-wall sex, described in detail, the book manages to avoid both titillation and grossness. This is all down to Sonchai's voice, the perspective that Burdett brings to bear on the situations. It's refreshingly honest and gives the book a vital texture. You'll never feel as if you're suffering through an obligatory "romantic" sex scene in one of Burdett's novels.
'Bangkok Haunts' is a thriller propelled not only by a series of mysterious events, natural and supernatural, but mostly by a voice that you simply want to hear. As Sonchai dives in the circumstances that brought the movie into being, the reader becomes equally invested in the outcome. Burdett manages a denouement that lives up to all the trails he's been traveling, both in this world and the next. There's a particularly vivid and terrifying climax to this novel that will remain in mind long after you close the covers. Fortunately, the best humor and Burdett's serene Buddhist point of view also stay close. You will indeed be haunted. .