Det Sonchai Jitpleecheep

(creator: John Burdett)

John Burdett
Det Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a Bangkok Buddhist policeman. The son of a Thai prostitute and an American soldier at the time of the Korean War, he used to take drugs and steal cars, "a golden age which came to an end when Pichau (his friend) murdered our yaa baa (methamphetamine) dealer .... Our mothers secured us an interview with the abbot of a forest monastery .... who told us we were the lowest form of life in the ten thousand universes .... After six months of mosquitoes and mediation, remorse had gouged our hearts. Six months after that the abbot told us we were going to mend our karma by becoming cops." And so they did. But they had to become not only honest cops but arhat cops. An arhat is "a fully realized man who voluntarily pauses on the shore or nirvana, postponing his total release in order to teach his wisdom to wretches like us."

He is a good-looking man in his thirties whose combination of Buddhist fatalism with his own wry humour and dogged determination to avenge his partner's death make him a resolute investigator. He is described by a colleague as "straight, honest, compasssionate". The author sees him as a sort of everyman, reliant on "the power of Buddhist meditation boosted by cannabis".

John Burdett (1951- ) is the son of a London policeman who went on to practise law for 14 years in London and Hong Kong until he was wealthy enough to be able to retire to write full time. He has lived in France, Spain, Hong Kong and the U.K. and now commutes between Bangkok and Southwest France. He explains that, after living in Thailand, he has become more and more of a Buddhist himself. He meditates for one or two hours a day.

Bangkok Eight (2003)
Bangkok Eight is narrated by Buddhist cop, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who finds himself investigating the deaths by snakebite of his partner Pichai Apiradee and US marine sergeant William Bradley. "How does anyone drug a full-size python and twenty cobras and get them to bite the right guy at the right moment?" It is, you can't help feeling, rather an unlikely situation.

Sonchai develops distinctly ambiguous feelings toward Kimberley Jones, an American FBI agent brought in to work on the case, as together they iinvestigate Bradley's companion, a strangely glamorous woman known as Fatima, and a rich American jade dealer, Sylvester Warren.

The strength of the book lies in its vivid portrayal of Bangkok street life, the Thai sex trade and drug smuggling, and of Buddhist philosophy - and it is a distinctly Thai (not a sanitised/sentimentalised American) version of Buddhist beliefs and behaviour. Policemen (apart from Sonchai and PIchai) rely on bribes to earn a living wage. Even a colonel of police has "the military bearing, strong jaw and frank unblinking eyes of a truly accomplished crook". Pervading everything, is the sense of korma: "With us the lifting of the egoic veil at the moment of death reveals the working of karma in all its pitiless majesty: see that clubfoot in your next life, that's from when you fouled your best friend on the football pitch; see those buckteeth the size of gravestones, that's your cynical sense of humour; see that early death from leukaemia, that's your greed."

A really nasty character runs the risk of being "reborn as a louse in the anus of a dog", as Sonchai puts it. And he is not surprised to find a "hungry ghost" in a go-go club "for they feed on every kind of vice .... We all believe in them, by the way, even those who would deny it to foreigners. To many people, especially in the country, the undead are a serious pest."

The actual plot is less interesting as it strains credibility more than a little. And not every reader will welcome such descriptions as that of the woman who "decided I would never have another man. I learned to shoot darts from my pussy instead". Sonchai's own mother has been taking an online marketing course, and has decided that what could be really profitable in this age of viagra is an "Old Man's Club", a brothel for older clients. As she points out, "They might have decided to go out with a bang, so to speak. We could be helping them to celebrate their last days on earth. They're trading in a couple more years of limping across the linoleum and endless card games with the other arthritic goners for maybe a week of ecstatic humping with the best thing they've seen for fifty years ... .This is a service of compassion and enlightenment. I'm sure the Buddha will approve."
Sonchai agrees,"Euthanasia by orgasm must be better than lethal injection."

The author, who seems to have thoroughly researched his subject, describes how "Bar after bar line the street opposite the sea, and behind every bar (is) a team of girls who will do anything you want for 500 baht so long as it doesn't hurt. We are a peace-loving people, we don't like pain. We don't like people who inflict it, either. We do not give law, sex and death more importance than those delusions deserve ...." As Sonchai later reminds us, "As a cure for the great cosmic disaster most of us call life, he (the Buddha) prescribed a rigorous course of meditation and pefect living over any number of lifetimes, with nothing (nirvana) as its final reward."

It turns out that "Thailand is the world capital for GRS - that stands for gender reassignment surgery" and one of the main (apparently) female characters in this story turns out to have begun life as "a male prostitute with little education" who had found a sponsor who "practically designed her" as he wanted her and then paid a skilled surgeon to carry out all the work that was needed. It all makes a highly unusual detective story - even if it is rather slow-moving at times and the setting will not be to everyone's taste.

Bangkok Tattoo (2005)
Bangkok Tattoo describes how a dramatically mutilated body is found in a hotel bedroom. The flayed-alive corpse with severed penis (the first of three such corpses) turns out to be a CIA agent. The self-confessed murderer is the beautiful Chanya, the best working girl at The Old Man's Club, a brothel owned jointly by Detective Sonchai's mother and his boss, police colonel Vikorn, an amiably corrupt character who is pursuing a personal feud against army general Zinna.

We are told more about brothel life than every reader may care to know. So it is explained that the arrival of viagra had posed problems as some of the club's ageing clients "popped as many as three or four. Only half a dozen suffered heart attacks, despite dire warnings on the bottle, and of those only three actually expired, the others uniformly declared they'd gone to heaven without having to die first. Now what was wrong with that? I'll tell you. Gentlemen, take a whole Viagra (or more) and you kiss your natural flaccidity goodbye for eight hours or longer. (Forget about urinating for a day; questions arise as how to carry out basic chores with that broomstick between your legs. Many report nostalgia for detumescence. Poetic justice: there's nothing to do but screw, whether you want to or not.) They wore the girls out, who started to leave in droves. My mother had promised full satisfaction and she hated to disappoint, which left us with no resource but a relay system ...."

Alerted by Detective Sonchai, Vikorn quickly concocts a cover-up that involves an Al-Qaeda terrorist cell located in a southern Thai border-town where, since 9/11, the CIA has also had a covert presence. Sonchai, as usual, goes on to run the gamut of Bangkok's drug-dealers, prostitutes, bad cops, even worse military generals, and the pitfalls of his own love life.

The story is again narrated by Sonchai and is told from a distinctly Thai point of view to the extent of the author frequently addressing the reader as farang, the Thai term for Westerners. So he asks us, “Does it surprise you, farang, that a good 10% of the entities you see walking around in human form are not human at all? It's been going on for a few hundred years now; immigrants from the Outer Limits, with their own agendas. Call them Special Forces from the Other Side. The final conflict won't be long now." And Sonchai keeps meeting people whom he thinks he recognises from a previous life so he and the girl Chanya “often speculated that we had known each other in previous lifetimes, perhaps a great many. We were too shy to say it, but we both wondered if we were not soulmates of the kind that meet up lifetime after lifetime."

It is all very violent and sexually explicit, and even Sonchai's colleague Lek turns out to be a katoey - a transexual, and the murderer ends up by being flayed alive - all described in graphic detail. The author shows more than a little sympathy for the working girls in the brothels. Sonchai's mother explains that, “For more than three decades the people of Isaan have been kept alive by what little cash their daughters in Bangkok had been able to send home. There are whole towns, roads, shops, farms, water buffalo, cars, motorbikes, garages, whole industries which owe their existence to our working girls. These courageous young women are the very essence of the female genius for sustaining, nurturing, honouring life with life. They are also everything that is great about the Thai soul, with their selfless devotion and sacrifice. They ask for no help or gratitude, they don't expect admiration, they gave up looking for respect decades ago, but they are the heart of our country."

The author's interest in prostitution even extends to Las Vegas where, we are told, prostitutes are trained to follow 14 rules of which number 11 is, “You now tell him (the john) to take out his cock. This is important. If he is an undercover cop he will not take out his cock. If he refuses, then you leave the room. It is not a cop he will take out his cock, which you will work on for a few moments ....'' And so it goes on. And on.

Doubt has been cast by some readers on the accuracy of some of the background details (such as the type of planes that flew into the Twin Towers, and the possibly romanticised details of Bangkok's seedy bar life), but it makes an arresting, if rather wandering, story, and it is one of those rare books in which lengthy flashbacks actually manage to hold the interest.

Interestingly, the author's note at the start of the book tells as that “I am bound to say that I have not myself come across police corruption in Thailand in any form, although the local media reports malpractice on almost a daily basis." Yet this forms a major part of the distinctly improbable plot!

Bangkok Haunts (2007)
Bangkok Haunts starts with Det Sonchai Jitpleecheep, aged 35 now, unhappily showing his old friend, FBI agent Kimberley Jones, a snuff video that he has been sent. It shows the appalling murder of Damrong, a beautiful prostitute whom he had once loved and who still visits him in his dreams ('There is," he tells us, " no erotic experience that compares to being fucked by a ghost").

Sonchai, helped by Kimberley, and his transsexual assistant, the "excessively effeminate" Lek (with whom Kimberley falls in love, and is quite prepared to pay to stop him having "everything cut off"!), is determined to get his revenge on the murderer. Meanwhile he is ordered by his corrupt and scheming boss, police captain Vikorn, to oversee the porn film-making enterprise that he is setting up.

As you'd expect in these books, we get detailed descriptions of what goes on in porn film-making, as when the director, who prides himself on his artistic touches, instructs a naked girl, "I've got your clitoris and the top of your pussy in the floor camera, but we're going to miss half of Jock's dick for the fuck cut. Shift your bum about half an inch backward. Good. Perfect. Now, get your body memory to log onto that. Jock, are you drooping?"

It makes a salacious, vicious, and highly unlikely plot, set against what comes to seem an increasingly improbable background, what with a woman pathologist who makes videos of dead bodies with phantoms fornicating and indulging in bestial goings-on with demons and the like, and an incredible ending, involving Damrong's ghost who “trapped her brother in her own cadaver so she could use his body while supervising the residual slaying" of two victims in the "elephant game" in which bound men are forced into specially constructed bamboo balls and kicked to death by understandably puzzled elephants!

Sonchai himself, and the Buddhist background, seem to grow less and less attractive from book to book: "We are tiny figurines hanging from the charm bracelet of infinity. When these bodies wear out, we will migrate to others. What will I be next, tinker, tailor, tiger, fly? Demon, Buddha, mountain, louse – all things are equal in their essential emptiness." As well as recognising people from previous lives, and dealing with the ghosts of the dead, we are even introduced to funeral casinos, illegal parties laid on "to surround your body with as many people as possible for the duration of the wake, which can go on for forty-nine days, at the end of which you would have found a new bivouac in someone's – or something's – womb." It is all to stop the newly dead from feeling lonely. Perhaps you need to be a Buddhist for whom nothing is real anyway to appreciate such a plot. I found it disappointing compared with the previous books.

The Godfather of Kathmandu (2010)
The Godfather of Kathmandu tells how Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, now aged 36, is appointed consigliere (his boss's confidant and representative in criminal activities) to police chief Colonel Vikorn, and is also summoned to investigate the most shocking murder of his career involving a rich fat fat American film magnate, the top of whose skull has been sawn open and his brains eaten.
Solving this case could mean a promotion but, still reeling from a personal tragedy, Sonchai is more interested in Tietsin, a charismatic exiled Tibetan mystic living in Kathmandu, who also happens to be a major drug-runner - and a more unlikely character than anyone but the author could imagine.

Tietsin has mastered the art of telepathy ("It is merely one of those faculties our ancestors developed to a certain point before discarding it in favor of something more reliable, like answering machines") so has no problem in keeping in touch with Sanchai at all times. Indeed Sonchai tells him, "For a moment just then you took over my whole mind".
"Be one of those who travel to the Far Shore," Tietsin tells him. "The Buddha doesn't give a broken alms bowl how you get there, just do it before it's too late." Meanwhile he can go on whoring and taking and distributing drugs ....

However, there are still obstacles in Sonchai's path to enlightenment. Police Colonel Vikorn and Army General Zinna are at war again for control over Bangkok's network of illegal enterprises - and Tietsin has forty million dollars' worth of heroin for sale.

Narrator Sonchai, who annoyingly still keeps addressing the reader as farang (meaning European/American), writes: "Okay, okay, farang, you don't want to know about that (the cosmic significance of prayer wheels), you want to know about sex, drugs and murder." But in fact he gives us both: lengthy descriptions of extreme Buddhist mystic experiences and graphic descriptions of sex and violence. So many in fact that they start to grow distinctly tedious, even if some of the descriptions (such as how a yogin lifts a five-pound rock with his penis - "I don't want to sound deflating here, but he didn't do it by means of an erection - now wouldn't that have been divine?") may be of some academic interest.

Altogether, despite the author's apparent detailed knowledge of the sleazy background, it all seems increasingly over-drawn and the basic plot is plain silly.

Vulture Peak
Vulture Peak is a "stately pleasure dome high on a hill in Phuket overlooking the Andaman Sea". Police Detective Sonchai tells us, "It's as good a place as any for a triple homicide", although these particular bodies "have been stripped of faces, eyes, genitals, and – as the good doctor indicates by pointing to gaping wounds in each cadaver – kidneys and livers too .... Stripped of every vestige of personal identity, they are all of us, as anyone knows who has ever flown economy."

So Sonchai is ordered to look into the trafficking in human organs in Thailand. It seems that this is a growing export trade. As his devious boss, Police Colonel Vikorn tells him, "It would be a first class racket if it wasn't for the short shelf life of the product. Did you know that lungs and hearts only last six hours? After that they're useless .... Eyes, of course, last longer. Just pop them out and chuck them in the fridge, they are good for a week …. How long do you think human testicles would last on ice?"
"I have no idea. I've never heard of transplanting testicles."
"There's an incredible demand for them in North Korea, did you know that?"
"Of course, with North Korea is you never know if they're going to transplant them or eat them."

So Sonchai sets off to Phuket, Hong Kong, Dubai, Shanghai, and Monte Carlo, drawing in a host of unlikely participants that include a frankly mad Inspector of Police from Hong Kong, a hideous murderer with next to no face, and the totally unbelievably diabolical gorgeous co-queenpins of the international body-parts trade: Chinese twins known as the Vultures who even travel to Lourdes to pick up potential customers. It is they who "use human organs as betting chips" and "embalmed human penises, rendered tumescent by means of some kind of stiffening agent, as dildos". But, in contrast, Sonchai himself, his Buddhist beliefs and his relationship with his possibly erring wife Chanya (who is working away at her Ph.D. thesis) are much more convincingly portrayed.

It makes a quite amusing, sometimes confusing, usually outrageous and ultimately totally absurd story, building up to an extraordinarily macabre climax in which practically everybody gets killed. The author himself describes it all as "frivolous" and so it is, as well as being very sexually explicit. But you could not describe it as boring.

The Bangkok Asset (2015)
The Bangkok Asset gets off to an interesting start with homicide detective Sonchai being called on to investigate the violent death of a young girl whose head was apparently pulled off with bare hands - and there is also a personal message to him written on a mirror in blood.

Working with the secretly gay young female Inspector Krom, the new head of technology, he subsequently witnesses a deadly demonstration of super-human strength from a handsome "man" known as the Asset, who is seemingly controlled by a CIA operative. Could the Americans really have figured out a way to create some sort of super-soldier who is both physically and psychologically enhanced? Are they testing it, or him, on Thai soil? And what is the connection with Sonchai's long lost American father? Sonchai's search takes him to a hidden Cambodian jungle compound where the truth about his father is also revealed.

It makes a rough, sleazy and ultimately rather tedious story, that gets increasingly nasty and absurd, and, as always, is very sexually explicit, even crude. Yet it demands attention. However, I shall not be reviewing any further books in this series.

There is an informative article about the author and his Bangkok background in The New York Times. There is also an interview with him on the A Necessary Angel site.

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Bangkok Eight cover
The cover is simple but appropriate.
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