Thai Air

John Burdett on 'Bangkok Haunts'

Thai Air

It's a rare and fine thing to discover an author of genre fiction who can craft such a strikingly original character as author John Burdett has done with his trio of novels (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts) featuring Det. Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the Buddhist cop who parlays his knowledge of Bangkok's seedier, sex-for-sale side into cold-case-cracking epiphanies both earthbound and ethereal.

Burdett's novels suck you in like a boozy back-alley peep show, submerging the reader in a hot, sticky murk of nuanced characterizations and sultry Thai realities. You can almost feel the tropical humidity of the place while reading Burdett's whip-smart, zenlike first person narration, and the daily doomery of lower-echelon badge-holders – which, in Det. Jitpleecheep's case, involves snuff movies, expat Japanese yakuza, the FBI and CIA spooks, and the occasional real ghost or demon – is as intense as being in the third-world hot spot itself. Why fly Thai Air when you can savor the mad, manic capital city minus its legendary pollution from the comfort of your own home, farang?

The Austin Chronicle spoke to Burdett by phone in advance of his Bangkok Haunts (Knopf, $24.95) tour stop in Austin this week, and figured out that in the eyes of the Thais, the West is a pretty dull place despite its ever-escalating global ambitions and all those randy GIs who arrived en masse during the late stages of the Vietnam War and forgot to leave forwarding addresses.

Austin Chronicle: How did an Englishman come to be the author of a trio of detective novels whose main character is an incorruptible, half-caste, practicing Buddhist Bangkok cop who spends his off hours in his mother's brothel when not making wry observations on its Western clientele or falling in and out of love or lust with "the girls?" Obviously, we're far afield of Dashiell Hammett or even Earl Derr Biggers here ...

John Burdett: I had been a barrister in Hong Kong for 12 years and, at the time, Hong Kong was recorded as being the most stressful city on Earth, second only to Beirut, which was having a civil war at the time. We would just sort of have to get out in order to stay sane, and one of the destinations was Thailand, the other being the Phillipines. So I'd been going there from 1984 onward.

AC: And your Bangkok series evolved out of those R & R outings?

JB: Well, I had wanted to write a police thriller based in Bangkok, and I sort of thought I'd hang out at the bars to see if I could make contact with English-speaking tourist police, of which they have a few, and do my research. The girls who work the bars there are typical Asian in that they'll tell you their life story just over a beer or something, and as I began collecting all this material, it finally dawned on me, wow, the story is really about these girls. I came across a few of these girls who had dark, crinkly hair – the first thing they tell you is "My daddy was an American soldier" – and then every time I tried to write the book in the third person, it just came out like some stupid caricature of the local culture. It took quite a while before I had the guts to write in the first person. But, once I was able to do that, the character of Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep emerged. The fact that he's a half-caste is probably the only totally fictional thing about the character. The rest of the stuff about the character is really quite typical, in the sense that there are cops who are incorruptible for religious reasons. People don't know that, and there's a huge spectrum of personalities, as you'd expect, but there are cops like that. And of course they're looking at the world from a Buddhist point of view, and their objection to corruption is supported by that viewpoint, so they're extra-Buddhist. They're using their religion as a defense against the corrupting influence of being on the force. And that's how it came about. And so there was a lot of research into not just the language and the culture, but Buddhism, as well.

AC: Have you become a Buddhist yourself?

Thai Air

JB: I haven't. I'm fascinated by Buddhism. I adore Buddhism, and I read about it all the time, but I haven't formally become a Buddhist, although I don't really know why I haven't. I guess I feel I don't need to.

AC: One of the most interesting characters in your books is the jovially corrupt Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai's direct superior, who reads like a cross between Sydney Greenstreet and Donald Trump. How much artistic liberty did you take in crafting Col. Vikorn? Is he really a Bangkok-cop archetype?

JB: [Laughing] Well, Thailand is full of anomalies, and one of strange things about the place is that the press is relatively free, and when it comes to reporting on the police, it seems to be totally free. And so to find out about police corruption, all I had to do is read the Bangkok Post. I've still got lots and lots of downloads from that paper which actually support most of the stories of that nature that appear in the books.

AC: You were born in London. Has the experience of writing these novels and spending so much time in the thick of it, as it were, changed your natural Western mind-set at all?

JB: Enormously, enormously. I only ever started reading about Buddhism for these books, for the research, and it fascinated me because it doesn't demand faith at all. You just have to think about what's being said, and then see if you agree with it or not. And that sort of suits my way of thinking. So just studying Buddhism, then meditating and going to Buddhist monasteries, talking to Buddhist monks, combined with the Thai people themselves, changed the way I look at the world. In essence, the Thai people are not materialistic at all. They're not in the least driven by the kind of ambition that drives us. The more I got to know them, and the more time I spent with them, the more I understood that this was a totally legitimate attitude to life, and why not? If you say to a Thai, "Look, if you work hard, go to a university, get qualified, own your own business, then one day you'll own your own Mercedes and a big house," they're likely to say to you, "Oh yeah? And is that going to make me immortal?"

AC: What kind of impact did the initiation of the Bush administration's so-called "war on terror" have on Thailand and its people? Your novels allude to the increased presence of American CIA and FBI agents in the region, but how does the populace of Thailand view the increased attention from the United States?

JB: I don't think they care very much at all because they're used to it. There were so many Americans there during the Vietnam War – the north of Thailand was used as the base from which the U.S. bombed Laos for 9 years – that the Thais have the feeling that if you want to come over and spy on our country so much, go ahead. They've always been very supportive of America, but what has changed since the American invasion of Iraq is not a rejection of the West so much as a realization that they don't much like the way the West is doing things, and China is becoming more powerful and more influential by the day. What Iraq has done is turn the whole region to look toward China, whereas in the past it always looked toward the West. And I don't mean in a judgmental way, but in the sense that something has gone haywire in the West, and we can't really trust it anymore.

AC: Are your Bangkok novels read widely in the region, and if so, what sort of reaction have they garnered?

JB: I deliberately don't permit them to be translated into Thai. They are there in English form, and a lot of English-speaking expats have read them, but as far as the Thais are concerned, no, I don't want them to be translated.

AC: Why?

JB: There are a lot of reasons, but it has the most to do with the whole Southeast Asian obsession with face. They wouldn't see it as just the noir genre of writing transposed to Bangkok at all. They would see it as deeply insulting and hurtful and so on. I don't know why I should put them and me through that sort of thing at all. end story

John Burdett will be at BookPeople on Tuesday, June 19, 7pm.

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Bangkok Haunts, John Burdett, Knopf

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