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A Royal Thai Detective Novel (1)

Written by John BurdettAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by John Burdett


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: June 03, 2003
Pages: 0 | ISBN: 978-1-4000-4091-9
Published by : Vintage Knopf

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A thriller with attitude to spare, Bangkok 8 is a sexy, razor-edged, often darkly hilarious novel set in one of the world’s most exotic cities.

Witnessed by a throng of gaping spectators, a charismatic Marine sergeant is murdered under a Bangkok bridge inside a bolted-shut Mercedes Benz. Among the witnesses are the only two cops in the city not on the take, but within moments one is murdered and his partner, Sonchai Jitpleecheep—a devout Buddhist and the son of a Thai bar girl and a long-gone Vietnam War G.I.—is hell-bent on wreaking revenge. On a vigilante mission to capture his partner’s murderer, Sonchai is begrudgingly paired with a beautiful FBI agent named Jones and captures her heart in the process. In a city fueled by illicit drugs and infinite corruption, prostitution and priceless art, Sonchai’s quest for vengeance takes him into a world much more sinister than he could have ever imagined.



The African American marine in the gray Mercedes will soon die of bites from Naja siamensis, but we don’t know that yet, Pichai and I (the future is impenetrable, says the Buddha). We are one car behind him at the toll for the expressway from the airport to the city and this is the closest we’ve been for more than three hours. I watch and admire as a huge black hand with a heavy gold signet ring on the index finger extends from the window, a hundred-baht note clipped stylishly between the pinkie and what our fortune tellers call the finger of the sun. The masked woman in the booth takes the note, hands him the change and nods in recognition at something he says to her, probably in very bad Thai. I tell Pichai that only a certain kind of American farang attempts conversation with toll booth operators. Pichai grunts and slides down in his seat for a nap. Survey after survey has shown sleep to be my people’s favorite hobby.

“He’s picked someone up, a girl,” I mutter casually, as if this were not a shocking piece of news and clear proof of our incompetence. Pichai opens one eye, then the other, raises himself and stretches his neck just as the Mercedes hatchback races away like a thoroughbred.

“A whore?”

“Green and orange streaks in her hair. Afro style. Black top with straps. Very dark.”

“I bet you know who designed the black top?”

“It’s a fake Armani. At least, Armani was the first to come out with the black semi–tank top with bootlace straps, there have been plenty of imitators since.”

Pichai shakes his head. “You really know your threads. He must have picked her up at the airport, when we lost him for that half hour.”

I say nothing as Pichai, my soul brother and partner in indolence, returns to his slumbers. Perhaps he is not sleeping, perhaps he is meditating. He is one of those who have had enough of the world. His disgust has driven him to ordain and he has named me as the one who, along with his mother, will shave his head and eyebrows, which honor will permit us to fly to one of the Buddha heavens by clinging to his saffron robes at the moment of death. You see how entrenched is cronyism in our ancient culture.

In truth there is something mesmeric about the black marine’s head-and-shoulder set which has consumed all my attention. At the beginning of the surveillance I watched him get out of his car at a gas station: he is a perfectly formed giant and this perfection has fascinated me for three hours, as if he were some kind of black Buddha, the Perfect Man, of whom the rest of us are merely scale models with ugly flaws. Now that I have finally noticed her, his whore looks erotically fragile beside him, as if he might crush her inadvertently like a grape against the palate, to her eternal and ecstatic gratitude (you see why I am not suitable for monkhood).

By the time I have inched up to the toll booth in our dying Toyota, he has flown to who knows what celestial bed of pleasure in his late-model Garuda.

I say to my beloved Pichai, “We’ve lost him,” but Pichai also has flown, leaving only his uninhabited corpse, which snores in the seat beside me.

Naja siamensis is the most magnificent of our spitting cobras and might be our national mascot, for its qualities of beauty, charm, stealth and lethal bite. Naja, by the way, is from the Sanskrit, and a reference to the great Naja spirit of the earth who protected our Lord Buddha during a dreadful storm in the forest where he meditated.


The elevated expressway is the only road in the city where a Mercedes E series can outrun a Toyota Echo, and I drive without hope or haste (which comes from the devil; slowness comes from Buddha), just for form, feeling out of place amongst the elite vehicles whose owners can afford the toll: Mercs and BMWs, Japanese four-by-fours, plus a lot of taxis with farangs in the back. We fly above the brothel-hotels of the Nana district before I take a slip road into the primeval jam below.

Nobody jams like us. On Sukhumvit at the junction with Soi 4 the traffic is solid in four directions. There is a sentry box here for the traffic cops who are supposed to deal with the problem, but how do two underpaid cops move a million cars packed like mangoes for export? The cops are asleep behind their glass and the drivers have given up honking their horns. It is too hot and humid to honk. I spy our guns and holsters in a tangle at Pichai’s feet, along with the radio and the portable siren to clamp on the roof when we finally go into action. I nudge Pichai.

“Better call him, tell him we lost the mark.”

Pichai already has the monkish capacity to hear and understand whilst asleep. He groans, passes a hand through the condemned jet-black locks which I have always envied and bends double to retrieve the Korean short-wave radio. An exchange of static and the unsurprising intelligence that Police Colonel Vikorn, chief of District 8, cannot be located.

“Call him on his mobile.”

Pichai fishes his own mobile out of a pocket and presses the autodial button. He speaks to our Colonel in terms too respectful for modern English to carry (somewhere between “sire” and “my lord”), listens for a moment, then slips the Nokia back in his pocket. “He’s going to ask Traffic to cooperate. If the black farang shows up, Traffic will call us on the radio.” I turn up the air-conditioning and wind the seat back. I try to practice the insight meditation I learned long ago in my teens and have practiced intermittently ever since. The trick is to catch the aggregates as they speed through the mind without grasping them. Every thought is a hook, and if we can only avoid those hooks we might achieve nirvana in one or two lifetimes, instead of this endless torture of incarnation after incarnation. I am interrupted by more static from the radio (I register static, static, static before emerging from the meditation). Black farang in gray Mercedes reported stopped at Dao Phrya, on the slip road under the bridge. Pichai calls the Colonel, who authorizes the siren.

I wait while Pichai slips out of the car, clamps the siren to the roof, where it flashes and wails to no effect on the gridlock, and walks over to the sentry box, where the traffic cops are dozing. At the same time he is strapping on his holster and gun and reaching in his pocket for his police ID. A more advanced soul than I, he gives no sign of the disgust he feels at being trapped in this pollution called life on earth. He would not wish to poison anyone else’s mind. Nevertheless, he smacks his hand somewhat violently against the glass of the sentry box and yells at them to wake the fuck up. Smiles and a gentlemanly discussion before the boys in donkey brown (the uniform can appear bottle green in some lights) emerge to take charge. They come up to me in the car and there is the usual double-take when they see what I am. The Vietnam War left plenty of half-castes in Krung Thep, but few of us turned into cops.

There are several inches of slack within which every car can shunt, and our colleagues show considerable skill and cunning in making a space. In no time at all I am able to drive up onto the sidewalk, where the siren terrorizes the pedestrians. Pichai grins. I am skilled at very dangerous driving from the days when we used to take drugs and steal cars together, a golden age which came to an end when Pichai murdered our yaa baa dealer and we had to seek refuge in the Three Jewels of the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha. There will be time in this chronicle to explain yaa baa.

While I practice close encounters with cooked-food stalls, sex traders and oncoming traffic, wheel spins, split-second lurches and even one hand-brake spin, I try to remember what Dao Phrya Bridge is famous for. Why have I heard of it at all?

We are very happy. Sabai means feeling good and sanuk means having fun. We are both as we race toward the bridge in demonic haste, with Pichai chanting in Pali, the ancient language of the Gautama Buddha, for protection from accidents. He asks also of the Buddhist saints that we do not accidentally kill anyone who does not deserve it, a touchy point with Pichai.

Krung Thep means City of Angels, but we are happy to call it Bangkok if it helps to separate a farang from his money.
John Burdett|Author Q&A

About John Burdett

John Burdett - Bangkok 8

Photo © Jerry Bauer

John Burdett is the author of A Personal History of Thirst, The Last Six Million Seconds, Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts, The Godfather of Kathmandu and Vulture Peak. He divides his time between Thailand and France.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with John Burdett
Author of BANGKOK 8

Q: When did you start spending time in Bangkok and what first brought you there?  There are characters in your novel who come to Bangkok for work and fall in love with the city--some decide they never want to leave.  Did you have a similar experience?
A: I worked in Hong Kong for twelve years during a period when it was said to be second only to Beirut in terms of stress (Beirut was in a civil war at the time). Thailand was the only place to really relax and I went about four times a year for most of those twelve years. The hospitality and good nature of the people is legendary and very seductive, so I guess the answer is yes.
Q: Where did you get the idea for BANGKOK 8 and the inspiration for its diverse characters?
A: I wanted to write about a Third World country and started out with Morocco in mind - one of my favorites. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that Bangkok had the greater allure and as soon as I decided to write about Bangkok I realized that the sex industry possessed that combination of intrigue, human interest and inversion of values which make a novel worth reading.
Q: This novel is rich in detail--from the (often corrupt) workings of the police force to the drug-trade; from the sex industry to the mining of rare gems; from Buddhism to sex change operations--What kind of research went into this novel?
A: I became an almost fanatical fan of the Bangkok Post which in its electronic edition gives free access to archives going back to 1996. Use the key word ‘Police’ and you get about five thousand articles. I also studied a number of academic works including the ground-breaking Guns Girls Gambling and Ganja which (believe it or not) is a very serious investigation into Thailand's black economy by two highly respected Thai academics.
Q: Sonchai is very much a product of Bangkok’s sex industry—his mother a successful prostitute and the father he has never met an American soldier. Many of the characters are in some way part of the industry and find themselves having to defend the merits of prostitution.  Was this an issue you set out to engage?  Or can one not write about Bangkok without it?
A: I am somewhat embarrassed to give the impression that Bangkok is all about prostitution, which is not at all the case and I hope to redress the balance with a suitably humble Author's Note. On the other hand, the sex industry is huge and once I started to investigate, mostly by interviewing the girls who work in it (tough research project), I began to admire them more and more. They frequently live on a pittance, practice Buddhist compassion by helping each other out with cash flow problems, send a huge proportion of their money home to support children, parents, brothers, sisters, often live as many as ten or twelve to one room, manage to dress better than most Western women and keep their spirits and sense of humor. It might not be respectable but in my view it is definitely heroic.
Q: Your novel opens with a very imaginative murder—involving multiple snakes—where did that idea come from?

A: From a short story by Truman Capote called Hand Carved Coffins.
Q: At one point Sonchai says of his country, “it begins to look as if 61 million people are engaged in a successful criminal enterprise of one sort or another.  No wonder my people smile a lot.”  Is the kind of corruption you portray reflective of the real Bangkok?  And do people smile a lot?

A: Thais are famous for smiling a lot and Thailand is sometimes called the Land of Smiles - but the smile is not without its ambiguity. Thais are a non-confrontational people who set great store by personal dignity so the smile can hide just about anything. Thailand is still a poor country, though it seems to get richer by the month, and it is invariably the case with poor countries that people prefer to bend or ignore the law rather than suffer too much hardship. Police corruption— so-called according to Western values— may turn out to be the expression of compassion by cops who themselves come from very poor backgrounds and are not about to punish people for relatively harmless survival strategies, although one should not exaggerate. A lot of cops are very rich. I do not have any direct experience of police corruption— the cops have always treated me with more honesty and respect than one has come to expect from their counterparts in the west— but the data set out in Guns Girls Gambling and Ganja is pretty impressive, as are the stories in the Bangkok Post.
Q: The idea of karma and past lives is central to Sonchai and to much of what happens in this novel.  Is that important to you as well?

A: I am frankly fascinated by Buddhism and therefore also intrigued by the possibility of previous lives, but one has to draw a distinction between Buddhist doctrine and the way it is popularly interpreted in a country like Thailand which still has a pre-Buddhist tradition of Hinduism and animism (India was very influential in the region in the past and is said to have first introduced prostitution to Thailand in 17th century— and that the Thais took to it like ducks to water). In strict Buddhist doctrine there is no reincarnation which implies a soul migrating from one body to another, but simply a kind of continuum caused by karma, usually referred to as re-birth. Needless to say the average Thai is not concerned with such a fine distinction and there is a rather impressive body of evidence corroborating claims of previous incarnations.
Q: You were a partner in a leading law firm in Hong Kong—how does your legal background inform this novel?

A: Well, in my opinion a good lawyer knows where law stops and life begins, but the discipline does induce a healthy respect for detail. I started out as a barefoot lawyer in a law center, went from there to being a government lawyer in Hong Kong, then went into private commercial practice. I guess I can claim that like a cop I've had professional experience in many strata of society and have a good idea of the extent to which peoples' lives are shaped by law and the extent to which law needs to be customized for survival purposes.
Q: At the heart of this novel, and in the heart of Sonchai as well, is the tension between East and West.  One of your American characters, FBI agent Kimberly Jones, says of Bangkok, “This is a magic ravaged land, you now that?  Coming here has made me appreciate who ever invented logic, because before logic I think the whole world was like this.”  When cultures clash, do you think it’s possible to find that balance between magic and logic?

A: I don't think it's a question of balance but evolution. Although we are all too politically correct to say so, I have the impression that the West looks on the people of the developing world as having terrific potential as human beings once they dump those aspects of their culture, including God, which conflict with market forces. The Third World, on the other hand, is usually too polite to say so but often look on us as living weirdly fragmented lives which provide no real satisfaction, of the needs of heart, soul, stomach, libido or blood ties. The difference is that a country like Thailand is addressing its problems and changing with amazing speed. Whether we are doing anything about our underlying alienation from our own humanity is a different question. At the end of the day though I think there does need to be an evolution of value structures on both sides.
Q: Okay I have to ask: Is there actually a place that resembles the Old Man’s Club?

A: No but I would refer you to a conversation between Kimberly and Sonchai where Sonchai reflects on how accommodating the sex industry can be to Western misfits including the aged. The fact is that the East really does not have the cult of youth (except in Japan) and Viagra is on sale over the counter in every pharmacy in Bangkok— you could say that every bar is a de facto old man's club, though not exclusively so.
Q: Sonchai mentions that he is a fan of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe.  Does he share his literary taste with his creator?  Which writers do you most admire?

A: I like Chandler's wit. I admire Martin Cruz Smith whose Gorky Park for me is still a benchmark for really polished thrillers, and I admire John Le Carre and Truman Capote, but my true hero— the man who for me mastered plot, human interest, Third Word insight and brilliant economy of language is Graham Green (I've read The Quiet American about 12 times). I'm trying not to inflict my ridiculous eclecticism on you— I'm the sort of person who can keep Dante and Len Deighton as bedside reading and dip into both in the space of an hour.
Q: So, what is next for you?  Will we be seeing Sonchai again? 

A: Yes, I've sort of fallen in love with his mother (platonic of course).



“A tour de force. . . . Burdett is purely and simply a wonderful writer.” —The Washington Post

"A stiletto-sharp mystery/thriller . . . brilliantly rendered." —The Seattle Times-Post Intelligencer

“Like Thai cuisine, Burdett’s comic thriller blends spicy, sour, salty and sweet—and makes for a delicious wake-up for jaded palates.” —People

“Vividly written and even more vividly imagined. . . . This novel is as wild as the city in which it takes place. . . . Read it to blow your mind.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“A thriller as exotic as it is enthralling, and as provocative as it is obscene.” –Harper’s

“One of the year's most seductive thrillers. . . . Think of Bangkok 8 as a destination spot for any reader with a taste for the exotic and desire for a really good time.” –New York Daily News

“Gruesome and memorable.” –The New York Times

“Burdett knows how to dole out engagingly gory details and hard-boiled platter.” –Entertainment Weekly

“A different kind of mystery, one you’re not likely to have seen before. . . . Bangkok 8 makes you change your perspective. It takes you into another world and exposes you to different ways of thinking.” —Rocky Mountain News

Bangkok 8 is one of the most startling and provocative mysteries that I've read in years. The characters are marvelously unique, the setting is intoxicating and the plot unwinds in dark illusory strands, reminiscent of Gorky Park. Once I started, I didn't want to put it down.” –Carl Hiaasen

“Edgy, intricate and atmospheric . . . [Burdett] uses plenty of narrative sleight-of-hand to weave together character development, comic relief and inspired plot twists while steering clear of facile exoticism.” —Time Out, New York

“The wildest ride in modern crime novel exoticum. A novel so steeped in milieu that it feels as if you’ve blasted to mars in the grip of a demon who won’t let you go. Read this book, savor the language–it’s the last–and the most compelling word in thrillers.” –James Ellroy

“Characters are well-developed and the tale is carefully woven and fun to read.”
–Columbus Dispatch

  • Bangkok 8 by John Burdett
  • July 13, 2004
  • Fiction - Mystery & Detective
  • Vintage
  • $15.00
  • 9781400032907

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