A love letter to Bangkok: Bangkok Eight and Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett

28 February, 2012

Whenever I go on holiday, I like to read something from or about the place I’m going to. So this year, as I did a flying visit to Bangkok to go on an eating and shopping spree, I dusted off two books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages: Bangkok Eight and Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett.

Featuring a half caste Buddhist cop, one of only two honest policemen in the Bangkok police force that cannot be bribed, Burdett’s anti-hero, Sonchai Jitpleecheep is as complex as his background. With an unknown American GI as his father and a ‘retired’ prostitute for a mother, Sonchai has had a chequered upbringing that wasoverturned 180 degrees after a serious transgression in his youth. Having become enlightened to the Buddhist way of life, he has been living his life acquiring merit for his next life.

In Bangkok Eight, we are introduced to Sonchai and his partner who are staking out a big black American Embassy employee who is found dead in a car filled with poisonous snakes. They track down his girlfriend, a beautiful mixed Thai woman only to tap into the sinister side of the Thai red light district of which Sonchai is so familiar. As a diplomatic row threatens and the body count rises, Sonchai must try and find the killer without sacrificing his morals.

In the sequal Bangkok Tattoo, there has been a spate of murders in which the victim has been flayed. When a young American CIA agent on the hunt for possible Islamic insurgents becomes the next victim, Sonchai must find the killer before the love of his life, the young prostitute Chanya, is sent down for murder. He tracks down an elusive Japanese tattoo artist who plies his trade in Bangkok who has apparently been working on many of the victims. Is he connected to the murders? Can Sonchai save his girl?

I was expecting these thrillers to be rather hard boiled, but they totally surprised me. In a good way, of course. The two books dissect the complexities of Thai life without shying away from the usual impressions and stories that foreigners often have of Thai people. Burdett’s characters are often larger than life, but there is a humanity that endears them to the reader, in particular Sonchai’s fiery mother for whom I have a soft spot and his boss, a corrupt father figure who has a finger in every pie.

I learnt a lot about a country and its people of which I am familiar, but which has also made me want to know more. There are lots of references to food, the skin trade and the complex interaction of religion, business and family which make these two books a rather fascinating portrait of a complex society.

I’ll be checking the third in the series, Bangkok Haunts soon. Do also check out Polly’s review too.

12 Responses to “A love letter to Bangkok: Bangkok Eight and Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett”

  1. Intriguing book. With all your country-specific reading, you sound like you might be a good source of suggestions for A Year of Reading the World (http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com/). If you have any titles to recommend, I’d be very interested to hear about them. Good luck

  2. Gerry Says:

    Isn’t this an amazing series. I wonder if he’ll write more on Bangkok. I hope so.

    • sakura Says:

      I think he’s written three more books in the series, Bangkok Haunts, The Godfather of Kathmandu and Vulture Peak. Can’t wait to read them!

  3. Gavin Says:

    I love this series. He has a new one out in the US, Vulture Peak. I have it on hold at the library.

  4. Steph Says:

    I don’t have much luck with hardboiled crime fiction either, so I’m delighted to hear that these aren’t what one would expect (they have always seemed very grisly to me). It sounds like I should definitely plan to check these out in preparation for my trip to Thailand!

    • sakura Says:

      It’s not hard-boiled at all. But it’s definitely an eye-opener regarding the true nature of Bangkok and the inner lives of Thai people. Really interesting.

  5. Alex Says:

    I was in Thailand for two weeks last year and also looked into books set there. I remember looking at these, but decided to go with The Windup Girl, just because it’s more likely that I’ll love a sci-fi novel than a thriller.

    • sakura Says:

      I didn’t even think about The Windup Girl which is one of the books I’ve been dying to read. I’ll have to take that with me the next time I visit! I’ve heard SO many good things about that book!

  6. novelinsights Says:

    I’m really glad you enjoyed this. I always get a touch of paranoia when I recommend a book that actually I remember it being better than it was and the other person will think they’ve wasted their time but I thought it was a pretty sure bet this would be your cup of tea… Looking forward to hearing about your hol on Tues!

    • sakura Says:

      I’d had these books on my radar for many years but hadn’t met anyone who had read them, so it was nice to see your thoughts:) And you were right, I loved them!

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