Bangkok Haunts by John Burdett
Reviewed by Jason Erik Lundberg
18 April 2008
One of the most important realizations of Siddhartha Gautama's enlightenment was the concept of dependent origination (Paticca Samuppada): the simultaneous belief in interconnectedness and emptiness. A sentient being (or any phenomenon) exists only because of the cause-and-effect relationship between every other phenomenon in the universe, where everything is connected in a vast karmic web; at the same time, this sentient being has no inherent existence independent of the universe, and is in constant impermanent flux. Each one of us depends on everyone and everything else to exist, and the Buddha saw this realization as the reason for the ultimate end of violence and war and poverty and cruelty.
It took three books, but I as a reader finally came to my own realization that this concept is why John Burdett's Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep acts the way that he does. His training as an arhat (a Buddhist saint: one who has been liberated from cyclic existence) has ingrained dependent origination deep inside of his psyche, which is why he is able to relate to people all along the socio-economic spectrum as part of his job. Half-Thai and half-American, he speaks both languages fluently; his English also has a bit of a British accent, lending a certain authority to his words, which is useful when working with CIA or FBI agents in Bangkok (aka Krung Thep) on a case. He is just as comfortable talking to impoverished homeless squatters as he is to the wealthiest businessmen in the city.
Bangkok Haunts is the third in Burdett's detective/thriller series (the first two, Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo, were previously reviewed here and here), and is the best so far. (All notes and citations in this review pertain to the UK trade paperback published by Bantam Press.) The story begins with the viewing of a snuff film sent to Sonchai anonymously; the victim on the DVD is Damrong, a prostitute who briefly worked in the brothel run by Sonchai's mother, and who made Sonchai fall completely in love with her (a relationship that he barely escaped intact). Helping with the investigation is Kimberley Jones, the FBI agent who assisted Sonchai in the previous two books, and who has been ensnared by Bangkok's vibrant lifestyle and by Sonchai's katoey (transsexual) police partner Lek.
At the same time, Sonchai's superior, the opportunistic and savvy Colonel Vikorn, has decided to throw his hat into Bangkok's pornography industry, wanting to produce high-quality films to be shown in the city's hotel chains. They hire Yammy, a Japanese auteur with a death-wish, to create and direct the films, and are soon in business. However, much as Vikorn would like Sonchai to ignore the Damrong case and focus on porn, the murdered whore is proving difficult to forget.
"She wasn't a woman, she was a disease," [Sonchai says], still pacing, "a disease that infected the blood of half the men she ever serviced." He raises his head to stare at me. "In her hands your body was a pennywhistle that she could play anything on. But it wasn't what she did to your body alone, it was what she did to your heart—right? She knew how to set it on fire. She was an addiction worse than crack, worse than yaa baa—worse than heroin." (p. 108)
In Burdett's most explicitly fantastical passages, Damrong's spirit comes to Sonchai every night and pleasures him in his sleep, holding him as a sexual hostage until he avenges her death, much to the annoyance of his very pregnant wife Chanya. Damrong's ghost also appears at inopportune moments, such as standing in a convenience store queue and appearing as real as the other people around her. Day or night, she will not leave him alone; the trail to her killer leads Sonchai to the most exclusive men's club in Bangkok, to the back streets of Phnom Penh, and to the heart of a vast conspiracy that involves a mad Buddhist monk who frequents Internet cafés and leaves bracelets of elephant hair as his calling card.
Burdett's already considerable writing abilities and his control over story structure and pacing have improved in Bangkok Haunts. Though the plot is twisty as a bowl of Thai noodles, the narration is straightforward and streamlined, as opposed to the needlessly non-linear info-dumpish structure of Bangkok Tattoo. Burdett has also added more touches of deadpan humor and everyday weirdness than before, which serve to humanize Sonchai and expand upon the supernatural vibe of Bangkok itself. The prose continues to shine, such as in the following passage, wherein the aforementioned mad monk has been brought in for questioning by Sonchai, and asked if all his time spent in Internet cafés means that he is a modernist Buddhist:
A smile—not quite patronizing, but close. "Of course not. Modernism is largely a form of entertainment, and a superficial one at that. It doesn't survive environmental disasters or oil shortages. It doesn't even survive terrorist attacks. It certainly doesn't survive poverty, which is the lot of most of us. One flick of a switch, and the images fade from the screen. Ancient questions begin to torment us all over again: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? But without wisdom, these questions turn toxic. Confusion seeks relief in bigotry, which leads to conflict. One high-tech war, and we're back to the Stone Age. This is the connection between modernism and Buddhism. In other words, there isn't one unless you posit the latter as a cure for the former." A sudden charming smile: "On the other hand, it's convenient to download Buddhist texts without having to spend hours searching for them in a library. Until recently I'd had no idea how limited Theravada is. If I were to ordain today, I think I would do so in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives." (p. 160)
In addition to being a wry observation on the current condition of the technologically-able first world, this quote is an amazing condensation of Buddhist teachings, and provides a common rationale of why many people (monastics and lay practitioners alike) look to Buddhism for the answers to finding happiness, which often involves the epiphany that we don't need "stuff" to give our lives meaning. The monk's comment on the limitations of Theravada is also interesting; it is the branch of Buddhism that Thais typically observe, where the end goal is to become an arhat in order to break the pattern of cyclic mundane existence (samsara) and be reborn into a Pure Land (where one can train one's mind further to become a buddha, in a setting of complete peace). Compared to the Mahayana tradition (where the goal is also to achieve buddhahood, but to stay in samsara until then and help others to achieve their own enlightenments by spreading the Buddha's teachings), the focus is much more on individual mental progression rather than on advancing humanity as a whole toward the end of suffering. The ultimate result is the same regardless of the path chosen to get there, but the fact that Burdett's monk refers to Theravada as "limiting" is a telling detail in how the monk sees his previous training as a Buddhist monastic.
Burdett also uses some typographical tricks to indicate when Sonchai is switching back and forth between English and Thai, and even provides Thai text near the end of the book, a beautifully flowing written language full of curves and accents, much like the prostitutes that populate his novels. That Burdett is willing to stretch himself using these playful communicatory bubbles is an indication that after three novels in the same world he is comfortable to experiment with the characters and settings.
As with the previous books, we are also shown the impoverished and desperate country life of Asian peasants: northern Thailand in Bangkok 8, southern Thailand near the border with Malaysia in Bangkok Tattoo, and now just over the border into Cambodia in Bangkok Haunts. Khmer men make appearances as witch doctors and hired guns, and the rural jungle setting where Damrong was born and grew up also becomes the scene for the final act of the novel and the revelation of "The Elephant Game," a horrific method of execution involving an enraged elephant and a hollow man-sized ball constructed of bamboo. The contrast between the men and women living this miserable type of existence and the palatial extravagance of the Parthenon Club and the offices of the wealthy Khun Tanakan (Damrong's former lover) also bring to mind the relation between the third world and the first. Burdett makes his home in Bangkok, and it seems to be this first-hand familiarity that allows him to powerfully demonstrate how both worlds exist unfairly, simultaneously, in the same space.
And finally, like the previous books, Bangkok Haunts is full of sex—but though it is discussed at length, and is sometimes presented in every explicit detail, it is never meant to titillate. Through Sonchai's dry delivery, passion and lust are bled away, and the reader is left with something more clinical and objective. Sex is something that the Buddhist detective can't get away from by living and working where he does, and this blasé attitude toward sex reinforces the idea that in Thai society it is treated as no big deal; at the bars and brothels, it is a means to an end (for both parties), and in private it is an ordinary expression of love and intimacy.
It's just another way that Burdett showcases the vibrancy and depravity of Krung Thep, and the everyday sorcery and sympathetic magic that infuses the lives of the city's denizens. Bangkok Haunts is a fast read, but one that stays in the mind long afterward, plaguing the senses with the smell of curries, or the flashing lights of Soi Cowboy, or the startling sadness of silent Khmer guards. The experiences linger, illustrating how all the characters are connected, and how we are all connected. It is something to savor, and come back to, again and again.