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.