Beyond Sex and Tourists in John Burdett's Bangkok

Second of a four-part series.

Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok's famous red light districts, is a major draw for tourists. i i

Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok's famous red light districts, is a major draw for tourists. Michael Sullivan/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Sullivan/NPR
Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok's famous red light districts, is a major draw for tourists.

Soi Cowboy, one of Bangkok's famous red light districts, is a major draw for tourists.

Michael Sullivan/NPR

'Bangkok Haunts'

John Burdett reads from the latest book in the 'Sonchai Jitpleecheep' series.

'Bangkok 8'

Burdett reads from the first book in the series.

John Burdett i i

John Burdett is at work on his fourth — and probably, he says, last — detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep novel. Jerry Bauer hide caption

itoggle caption Jerry Bauer
John Burdett

John Burdett is at work on his fourth — and probably, he says, last — detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep novel.

Jerry Bauer
Boat on the Chao Phraya River. i i

John Burdett's narrator-detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, sometimes comes to unwind on the Chao Phraya River, which snakes through the center of Bangkok. Michael Sullivan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Sullivan, NPR
Boat on the Chao Phraya River.

John Burdett's narrator-detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, sometimes comes to unwind on the Chao Phraya River, which snakes through the center of Bangkok.

Michael Sullivan, NPR
Patpong district i i

Bangkok's Patpong district is where foreign tourists come looking for sex as well as pirated DVDs, designer bags, clothes and watches. Michael Sullivan, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Michael Sullivan, NPR
Patpong district

Bangkok's Patpong district is where foreign tourists come looking for sex as well as pirated DVDs, designer bags, clothes and watches.

Michael Sullivan, NPR

John Burdett hasn't lived in Asia that long — about 20 years, on and off. First in Hong Kong as a lawyer, and more recently in Bangkok as a full-time novelist. But surely he must have lived here in a previous life — or lives. How else to explain his ability to make you feel the heat of the jungle along the Thai-Cambodian border?

The first you see of dawn is blood in the eastern treetops. And a universal glowering heralding another unbearable day. Twenty minutes later, the sky starts to blind while it boils and you do everything in your power to get out of the way. The sun itself is usually invisible behind a pulsating screen of humidity, so that the whole sky seems to radiate an unhealthy intensity of light and heat. — from Bangkok Haunts

Bangkok is at the heart of Burdett's novels, a city he says is unlike any other.

"The way it invites you in, the way it entices you in, where it seems like chaos when in fact every move is carefully planned by the people involved," he says. "There are rules governing absolutely everything which you don't notice. And at the same time, amidst all these cultural rules, the enforcement of them tends to be gentle and restrained, with an awareness that other human beings need plenty of space."

Burdett says that makes Bangkok a very easy city to live in, psychologically, despite the pollution and traffic.

Burdett's Bangkok is far more than the bizarre murders, corrupt cops and big-hearted bar girls of his novels, which include Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Haunts.

It's also the city as a living breathing, thing, like the Chao Phraya River that snakes through Bangkok's center. The waterway is where Burdett's narrator-detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep sometimes comes to unwind

In the midstream, brightly painted tugs tow barges with big eyes painted on their bows while longtails, with gigantic former bus engines with outboard propeller shafts about 15 feet long, roar up and down packed with tourists. The river is still the only jam-free thoroughfare for a lot of people commuting to work and back. So the long, thin passenger ferries are packed. They arrive and depart the floating docks among a frenzy of hysterical whistles from pilots at the stern, who like to give the impression of catastrophe narrowly averted. — from Bangkok Haunts

Patpong, arguably the most famous red-light district in the world, provides the backdrop of Burdett's stories of Bangkok's underworld and underclass. The district is filled with foreign tourists — known here as farangs — where sex is for sale. And so is just about everything else: pirated DVDs, designer bags, clothes and watches. And all this commercial activity, Burdett says, is a byproduct of the sex trade.

Burdett spent a fair bit of time doing research in Bangkok's bars, where the girls wear numbers to make selection easier. Once, he was soaking up the atmosphere, getting to know the girls and their stories. The writer was hoping to find a cop who would be his guide into the subculture.

And then came his epiphany.

"I realized I didn't need the cop because I knew quite a bit about police procedure anyway," he says.

Burdett had practiced criminal law elsewhere in Asia, and police procedure doesn't change that much from one country to another, he says.

"What I needed was the human interest," he says. "I needed something that would grab at the guts beyond the normal police procedural."

He began listening to the bar girls' stories, and visited their home villages.

He saw "how they were living, how many people they were supporting, I realized, what could be better?"

The girls working Bangkok's bars, he says, are the real protagonists of his stories, and Detective Jitpleecheep is their mouthpiece. He's the son of a former Thai bar girl and an American soldier, with a foot planted firmly in both cultures. Jitpleecheep is deeply spiritual yet cynical, with an unflinching but sympathetic eye for both the hunter and the prey, though it's sometimes hard to tell which is which.

It is twenty minutes past midnight. Just the hour when the great game reaches its climax. Shy men who've been saying no all night find their will sapped by drink and the ceaseless attention of near naked young women. All of a sudden the prospect of going back to the hotel alone is more appalling and somehow more immoral — a crime against life even — than congress with a prostitute. Skillfully, the girls build a dream world of fantasy within the Western mind — a world which is mysteriously difficult to let go of. And the girls too, have heir fantasies of finding the farang who will support them for life, or, failing that, take them to the West and relieve them for a year or two of this living hand to mouth. Not to mention the indignity of their trade. — from Bangkok 8

Burdett is at work on his fourth — and probably, he says, last — detective Sonchai novel. Though it's unlikely he's done writing about the city he now calls home.

Excerpt: 'Bangkok Haunts'

Book Cover: Bangkok Haunts

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Bangkok Haunts

By John Burdett

Hardcover, 320 pages

List Price: $24.95

Few crimes make us fear for the evolution of our species. I am watching one right now.

In a darkened room in the District 8 Police Station with my good friend FBI agent Kimberley Jones, a forty-two-inch Toshiba LCD monitor hangs high up on a wall, out of the reach of villains.

The video I'm sharing with the FBI uses two industrial-quality cameras that between them seamlessly provide all the tricks of zoom, angle, pan, et cetera, and I am told that at least two technicians must have been involved in its production. The color is excellent, thanks to however many millions of pixels that contribute to their subtle shading; we are looking at a product of high civilization unknown to our forefathers. At the end of the movie, though, tough-guy Kimberley bursts into tears, as I'd rather hoped she would. I did. She turns her head to stare at me wild-eyed.

"Tell me it isn't real."

"We have the body," I say.

"Oh, god," Kimberley says. "Oh, sweet Jesus, I've seen things bloodier, but never anything this demonic. I thought I'd seen everything." She stands up. "I need air."

I think, in Bangkok? But I lead her through a couple of corridors, then out into the public area, where brown men and women not much more than half her size wait to tell a cop of their homely grievances. It's not exactly a festive atmosphere, but it's human. An American extrovert, Kimberley doesn't mind dabbing her red eyes with a tissue in front of an audience, who naturally assume I've just busted this female farang on some minor drug charge — cannabis, perhaps. Like my own, her eyes naturally seek out any attractive young women sitting in the plastic seats. There are three, all of them prostitutes. (No respectable Thai woman dresses like that.) They resent the attention and glare back. I think Kimberley would like to hug them in gratitude that they're still alive. I take her out into the street: not quite what the words fresh air normally invoke, but she fills her lungs anyway. "My god, Sonchai. The world. What monsters are we creating?"

We have achieved that rare thing, Kimberley and I: a sexless but intimate rapport between a man and a woman of the same age who are mutually attracted to each other but, for reasons beyond analysis, have decided to do nothing about it. Even so, I was surprised when she simply got on a plane in response to a frantic telephone call from me. I had no idea she was specializing in snuff movies these days; nor did I realize they were flavor of the month in international law enforcement. Anyway, it's great to have a top-notch pro familiar with the latest technology on my side. She's not intuitive, as I am, but owns a mind like a steel trap. So do I treat her like a woman or a man? Are there any rules about that where she comes from? I give her a comradely embrace and squeeze her hand, which seems to cover most points. "It's great to have you here, Kimberley," I say. "Thanks again for coming."

She smiles with that innocence that can follow an emotional catastrophe. "Sorry to be a girl."

"I was a girl too, the first time I saw it."

She nods, unsurprised. "Where did you get it, in a raid?"

I shake my head. "No, it was sent to me anonymously, to my home." She gives me a knowing look: a personal angle here.

"And the body, where was it found? At the crime scene?"

"No. It had been returned to her apartment, laid neatly on the bed. Forensics says she must have been killed somewhere else."

Now the American Hero emerges. "We're gonna get them, Sonchai. Tell me what you need, and I'll find a way of getting it to you."

"Don't make promises," I say. "This isn't Iraq."

She frowns. I guess a lot of Americans are tired of hearing those kinds of jibes. "No, but that movie had a certain style, a certain professionalism about it, and if that alpha male isn't North American, I'll turn in my badge."

"A Hollywood production?"

"For something like that, frankly the U.S. is the first place I would start looking. Specifically California, but not Hollywood. San Fernando Valley, maybe, with international connections. This could tie in with what I'm doing stateside."

"What would you look for? He was wearing a gimp mask."

"The eyeholes are quite large — light had to get in. You have isometric surveillance at all points of entry to this country. Give me a copy of the DVD — I'll get our nerds on the case. If they can make a good still of his eyes and enlarge it, it's as good as a fingerprint. Better. Are you going to let me see the body?"

"If you want. But how deeply involved do you want to get?"

"Look, I don't know much, but Chanya told me you're very upset. That touches me too. If I can help, then that's what I want to do."

"Chanya spilled her guts?"

"She loves you. She hinted that you need a little moral support from a fellow professional. I said okay, I'll do what I can, so long as he lets me in."

The FBI has no idea how many points she's accumulated with me for treating a pregnant third-world ex-prostitute as a friend and equal. That kind of heroism leaves us slack-jawed in these parts. Chanya loves her too, of course, and when a Thai girl loves, she tells all.

A tuk-tuk passes, spilling black pollution from its two-stroke engine. They used to be a symbol of Thailand: three wheels, a steel roof on vertical struts, and a happy smiling driver. Now they're a tourist gimmick catering to a diminishing number of tourists. So far the new millennium has not delivered much in the way of new; instead we have a certain foreboding that a return to old-fashioned grinding poverty might be our share of globalism. Kimberley hasn't noticed this yet—she's been here only two days, and already the work ethic has gripped her. She's not seeing the tuk-tuk or even its pollution.

"I'm not going to use our guys to copy the DVD," I say. She looks at me. "That kind of thing is produced in very limited numbers, sold to a specialized international market." She is still looking at me. I feel blood rising up my neck, into facial blood vessels. "This is a poor country." Still the look: I have to come clean. "They would sell it."

She turns away to save me from her contempt. A couple of beats pass, then briskly: "I'm okay now. How are you going to copy it?"

"I'm not. I'll put it in my pocket. You can use the business center at the Grand Britannia to e-mail it straight from the disk."

She waits in the public area while I go back to retrieve the disk: five point seven megabytes of distilled evil. Out on the street she pauses to stare at a young monk in his early to mid-twenties. He is tall, and there is an exotic elegance about him incongruous with the Internet café he is about to enter.

"Using the Net is frowned on by the Sangha, especially in public areas, but it's not a serious offense. Often monks use it to check Buddhist websites," I explain, glad to talk about something lighter than a snuff movie.

"Is he a regular around here? Somehow this doesn't seem like the kind of place a monk would want to hang out." Kimberley feels the need for small talk too.

"I saw him for the first time yesterday. I don't know which wat he's attached to."

Excerpted from Bangkok Haunts by John Burdett Copyright © 2007 by John Burdett. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Excerpt: 'Bangkok Tattoo'

Cover image from 'Bangkok Tattoo'

Cover image from Bangkok Tattoo hide caption

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Get suggestions from book critic Laura Miller and others.

Salon book critic Laura Miller picks novel Bangkok Tattoo as her top summer read.

From Chapter Two of Bangkok Tattoo

The receptionist, already oozing servility thanks to the five thousand baht I gave him an hour ago, starts to stutter when he sees Vikorn, who is by way of being emperor of these sois. The Colonel switches on his five-thousand-kilowatt charm and hints at what a lucrative future awaits those who know how to keep their mouths shut at a time like this. (Positive-type stutters from the receptionist.) I take the key again, and we mount the stairs.

Inside the room the stench that invariably accompanies a competent disemboweling has grown stronger since my first visit. I switch on the air-con, which only serves to cool the stench without diminishing its potency. I can see Vikorn working himself into a rage with me for dragging him over here. "Look," I say. I take out the dead farang's passport from the drawer where I found it earlier. I am not an expert on our occult immigration practices, but the form of his visa disturbs me. The passport is the property of one Mitch Turner.

It disturbs the Colonel too, for he grows pale as he stares at it. "Why didn't you mention this before?"

"Because I didn't know if it was important or not. I didn't know what it is. I still don't."

"It's a visa."

"I can see that."

"Good for two years with multiple reentry thrown in."

"Yes?"

"They never give two-year visas. Never. Especially not with multiple reentry. Except in certain cases."

"That's what I thought."

The visa has deepened our sense of tragedy, the violent loss of a relatively

young life so far away from home. "CIA or FBI?"

"CIA. We let in about two hundred after 9/11. They wanted to keep an eye on the Muslims in the south on the border with Malaysia. They're a pain in the neck because they don't speak Thai so they have to have interpreters." He looked at the corpse. "Imagine an overmuscled six-foot white farang with an interpreter trying to be incognito down in Hat Yai on a Friday night among our little brown people. Damn. I suppose it couldn't have been Al Qaeda?"

"But we already have a statement from the perpetrator?"

"She could be persuaded to retract. You didn't see any long black beards tonight?"

Is he serious? Sometimes my Colonel's super brain is beyond my poor faculties of comprehension. "I really don't see how that would help."

"You don't? Look, he's CIA — they'll lean on us from the top down. There are going to be footprints all over my shoulders, not to mention yours. They'll want their own doctors to examine Chanya — no signs of abuse, and we're in the s***. We could lose our most productive worker, maybe even have to close the club for a while."

"How would it help if it was Al Qaeda?"

"Because that's exactly what they'll want to believe. They're practically blaming the weather on Al Qaeda over there. Just say it's Al Qaeda, and they'll be eating out of our hands."

We exchange a glance. No, it's hopeless. It just doesn't look like a terrorist castration/murder. So what to do about Chanya? I did not examine her private parts, but somehow one doubts that any man would dare to abuse her. Speaking off the record if I may, she's as resilient as a wolverine and when cornered just as ferocious. I can tell by his expression that Vikorn shares my doubts. Whatever the truth of what happened in this room earlier tonight, it is unlikely to be on all fours with her statement, which she has not yet read. Now we are both staring at the farang's face.

"Kind of ugly, don't you think, even for a farang?"

I had thought the same thing myself but lack my Colonel's fearless self-expression: an abnormally short neck almost as wide as his head, no chin, a mean little mouth-perhaps she killed him for aesthetic reasons?

Vikorn's eyes rest for a moment on the rose in the plastic cup. I know what he's thinking.

"Doesn't quite fit her statement, does it?"

Vikorn turns his head to one side. "No, but leave it. The key to cover-ups is to leave the evidence alone, make the story do the work. The trick is all in the interpretation." A sigh.

"Bodies deteriorate rapidly in the tropics," I suggest.

"They need to be incinerated as soon as possible for public health reasons."

"Having taken a statement from the perpetrator and thereby solved the case, with no identifying documents on his person — we'll have to lose the passport."

"Good," Vikorn says. "I'll leave it to you."

We both give the victim the honor of one more scan. "Look, the telephone cable has been stretched — the phone is on the corner of the bed. A last-minute emergency call?"

"Check with the hotel operator."

"What shall I do about that?" I point.

Sophisticated practitioners, we have not troubled ourselves unduly with the murder weapon, which is lying in the middle of the bed, exactly where one would expect to find it if Chanya had killed him in the manner Vikorn says she did. I see this as a lucky sign and clear proof that the Buddha is looking favorably on our endeavors, but Vikorn scratches his head.

"Well, keep it. She did it, didn't she? So her prints are going to be all over it. What could they find on the knife except his blood and her prints? It all points to her statement being true. We'll give it to them as corroboration." A sigh. "She'll have to disappear for a while. Since it was self-defense, we don't have the power to hold her. Tell her to change her hair."

"A nose job?"

"Let's not exaggerate — we all look the same to them." A pause.

"Okay, let's go back to the club. You better tell me what really happened tonight, just so I can take precautions."

Excerpted from Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett Copyright (c) 2005 © by John Burdett. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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