The Godfather of Kathmandu
by John Burdett
Reviewed by Jeff Baker
John Burdett is writing the most exciting set of crime novels in the world. The four books featuring Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep demonstrate the enormous elasticity of the genre and how a talented writer can use it to discourse on just about anything.
Burdett is a British lawyer who got rich working in Hong Kong and quit to write fiction. He found the right setting (Thailand), character (Jitpleecheep), and themes (the tension and hypocrisy that occurs when East meets West) to launch and sustain a series. Bangkok 8 (2003) opened with a bang -- a man is killed by cobras in a locked car -- and introduced Jitpleecheep, a practicing Buddhist who might be the only cop in the country who's not on the take. Jitpleecheep is the son of a U.S. military man he's never met and a Thai prostitute who lived with a series of rich men and now owns a bar/brothel in the middle of Bangkok's massive red-light district.
Ever practical, Jitpleecheep helps his mother run the business while solving crimes for Colonel Vikorn, his ridiculously corrupt boss. Vikorn is amused and puzzled by Jitpleecheep and gives him murders involving farang (foreigners) because he thinks Jitpleecheep has special insight into them because of his background. He does, and Burdett's masterstroke is to have Jitpleecheep narrate in second person, patiently explaining Thai society. His voice is wise, sardonic and anguished, directly addressing the reader who struggles to keep up as farang.
The next two books in the series, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts, refined the formula -- grisly murder, philosophical dilemma for Jitpleecheep, intelligent riffs on contemporary Asia -- from a street-level perspective. Thais are superstitious and pragmatic, efficient and corrupt, and they love to eat. Burdett writes about it all with relish and loves to mix zingers about the cluelessness of the West into his narrative.
"Ours is an age of enforced psychosis. I'll forgive yours, farang, if you'll forgive mine -- but let's talk about it later," is how he opens his latest The Godfather of Kathmandu. From there, it's off to the races. Jitpleecheep is on the back of a motorbike, zipping through Bangkok to investigate the murder of a Hollywood director whose skull was cut open and brains eaten like Ray Liotta's at the end of Hannibal.
"So why doesn't someone arrest Thomas Harris?" an uncomprehending Vikorn asks Jitpleecheep.
"He didn't do it. He wrote the novels the crime is based on, along with Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum" and maybe some other noir influences -- I wouldn't be surprised to find Baudelaire in there somewhere."
Vikorn's already in an odd state because he watched the complete set of Godfather movies. He thought "old Corleone was a total sissy for refusing to trade in smack, and Sollozzo was well within his rights to have him bumped off ... On the other hand, he liked the ruthless way young Michael Corleone cleared out the opposition after the Don had been shot" and "loved the way they severed the head of the racehorse to intimidate Jack Waltz, but despised them for failing properly to capitalize on the wheeze: 'They could have had the whole film industry wrapped up after that. This is the problem with farang jao paw: they're shortsighted, triumphalistic, and they don't have Buddhist restraint or humility -- that's why I hate dealing with them.'"
Vikorn has made a reluctant Jitpleecheep his consigliere (after Robert Duvall's character in the movies) and assigned him to broker a heroin deal in Nepal that will involve a partnership with Vikorn's bitter rival, General Zinna. Jitpleecheep, in a precarious emotional state after a personal tragedy, falls under the influence of Norbu Tietsin, who has strange spiritual powers and wants use his heroin-smuggling profits to help lead an armed insurrection that will force the Chinese out of Tibet.
Jitpleecheep's task is to put his consigliere skills to use negotiating a heroin deal between Vikorn, Zinna and Tietsin while solving the director's murder and staying out of the clutches of a dragon lady in Bangkok and a Tantric sex goddess in Nepal. It all connects, eventually, but readers have to be patient as the plot gets lost somewhere between Thailand, Nepal and Hong Kong and doesn't reappear until the end.
"I need the vastness of dharma, so I'm sitting on the back of a motorbike taxi on the way to Wat Rachananda," Jitpleecheep says in a typical juxtaposition that opens another chapter. The beauty of Burdett's fiction is that he can have both, the dharma and the motorbike, and so can you, farang.