Monday, November 26, 2007

Foreign Thrills 1

I’ve been reading several series of recent thrillers with some key similarities. The series by John Burdett, Qui Xiaolong and Rebecca Pawel are set respectively in current day Bangkok, Shanghai and post-civil war Madrid. All of them feature protagonists with torn loyalties, a surprisingly wide range of emotional responses and complex aesthetic sensibilities. And while they are all true thrillers written within the conventions of the genre, they also take important liberties with the form and lead their characters down some very unpredictable pathways. Most importantly, they are all engrossing.

John Burdett began his Bangkok series with the 2003 thriller Bangkok 8, since followed by Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts (which I have not yet read). Burdett presents a Bangkok landscape that is at once glitteringly beautiful and poisonously corrupt. The lead character is the charming and complicated detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Detective Jitpleecheep is uniquely qualified to observe this city being a half-Thai, half-American, Buddhist, ex meth-addict police officer raised by a whore. Jitpleecheep remains wonderfully good-natured despite the corruption, the drugs and the sex that surround him. The gutter-dark portrayal of Bangkok is redeemed by having Jitpleecheep as its calm and fascinating center, allowing the city to seem powerfully complex and humane.

The books’ stories themselves have a difficult time standing out against the intricacies of the background. The baroque narratives remain true to the genre and circle upon catching killers. Along the way, they wind through such Thai cultural ephemera as transexualism, military violence, intricate tattoos, Muslim intrigue, meals of frogs and insects, stupid Western tourists, and lots and lots of sex for hire. All of it is filtered through Jitpleecheep’s inviting eye. The whodunit aspects of the stories are less than satisfying, but the language and observations are incessantly fascinating. Regarding the Americans who visit his mother’s Bangkok brothel, Jitpleecheep notes: “To look for nirvana in someone’s crotch, now that really is dumb. The horror was that these spiritual dwarfs were taking over the world.”


Brendan Wolfe said...

That last quote captures Jitpleecheep's voice perfectly. On the one hand it's wry and funny and insightful, on the other completely absurd. Would anyone really say that?

This tension helps to keep the first of Burdett's books afloat and, in my opinion, sinks the second. Like you, I haven't read the third.

The Corey said...
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