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Beyond Sex and Tourists in John Burdett's Bangkok
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Beyond Sex and Tourists in John Burdett's Bangkok


Today, in the second installment of our series Crime in the City, NPR's Michael Sullivan takes us to Bangkok to visit John Burdett. He is the best-selling author of "Bangkok 8," and "Bangkok Tattoo," and the just released "Bangkok Haunts."

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: 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 fulltime 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?

Mr. JOHN BURDETT (Author, "Bangkok 8," "Bangkok Tattoo," "Bangkok Haunts"): (Reading) "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 the whole sky seems to radiate an unhealthy intensity of light and heat."

SULLIVAN: But it's Bangkok that's at the heart of Burdett's novels, a city he says is unlike any other.

Mr. BURDETT: 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 and their 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, which makes it paradoxically a very easy city to live in psychologically, however hard it is taking into account the pollution and the traffic problems.

(Soundbite of traffic)

SULLIVAN: Burdett's Bangkok is far more than the bizarre murders, corrupt cops and big-hearted bar girls of his novels. It's also the city as a living, breathing thing, like the Chao Phraya River that snakes to the center of this city, Bangkok's Big Muddy, where Burdett's narrator, Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, sometimes comes to unwind.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mr. BURDETT: (Reading) "In the midstream, brightly painted tugs tow barges with big eyes on their bows, while long tails 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 amid a frenzy of hysterical whistles from the pilots at the stern who like to give the impression of catastrophe narrowly averted.

(Soundbite of whistling, boat engine sounds)

SULLIVAN: But for the first time visitor to Bangkok, Burdett says, there's really only one place to start.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BURDETT: This is the truly exotic side of Bangkok. Look around you at one of the most exotic and tellingly Thai buildings left, actually.

SULLIVAN: He's standing in the lobby of the Oriental Hotel, the place Burdett says he'd come to first every time.

Mr. BURDETT: Those huge wooden lampshades, the arches over the door, the whole way the whole place is set up, it's very pleasing to most Westerners that come here and find the whole thing just exactly as they imagined it. Of course, Bangkok isn't really like that at all, but it's nice to have that fantasy.

(Soundbite of music)

SULLIVAN: Fantasies of another sort, of course, provide the backdrop for Burdett's stories of Bangkok's underworld and underclass. And those fantasies can be indulged not far from the Oriental down Silom Road, in what's arguably the most famous red-light district in the world, Patpong. Filled with foreign tourists, known here as farangs, where sex is for sale, yes, but 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.

Mr. BURDETT: It's almost every tourist who stays more than one night in Bangkok visits Patpong. It's just on everybody's list. And if you look, you'll see that the farang men, especially the younger ones, are not necessarily all alone, come haunting. They've got their girlfriends and their families with them as well. And they're browsing the stalls, and they'll have a look. It's a bit like slumming, you know, to have a look in the go-go bars and so on. It's all part of the tourist experience.

SULLIVAN: Burdett spent a fair bit of time doing research in bars like this one, where the girls wear numbers to make selection easier. He was soaking up the atmosphere, getting to know the girls and their stories, hoping to find a cop, he says, who would be his guide into the subculture. And then came his epiphany.

Mr. BURDETT: I realized I didn't need the cop, because I knew quite a lot about police procedure, anyway. I practiced some criminal law and I've been in Asia a long time, and actually, police procedure doesn't change that much from one country to another. What I needed was the human interest. I needed something that would grab at the guts beyond the normal police procedurals. And it seems because these girls are grabbing at my guts when I've actually not only heard their stories, but decided to go back to their home villages and saw the way they were living and how many people they were supporting, I realized that, you know, what could be better?

(Soundbite of music)

SULLIVAN: The girls working in bars like this one, he says, are the real protagonists of his stories, and Detective Sonchai their mouthpiece. The son of a former Thai bar girl and an American soldier with a foot planted firmly in both cultures, 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BURDETT: (Reading) "It is twenty minutes past midnight, just the hour when the great game reaches a 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, then congress with a prostitute. Skillfully, the girls build a dream world of fantasy in the Western mind, a world which is mysteriously difficult to let go of. And the girls too, have their fantasies of finding the farang who would 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. The bar is packed.

SULLIVAN: Burdett is now 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.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Bangkok.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: You can read excerpts from John Burdett's Bangkok mysteries at Our series Crime in the City resumes Thursday when we investigate Baltimore with author Laura Lippman. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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