Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Godfather of Kathmandu by John Burdett

I read this in the Kindle edition and it is part of the 2010 Global Reading Challenge. Please visit that site to see the books set around the world that others are reading.

John Burdett's Bangkok series has given me great pleasure from its beginning with Bangkok 8. The author has lived in Bangkok and infuses his books with such a sense of place that the city is one of the characters. A seamy character to be sure but I come away from the reading with the sounds, smells, general ambience, a firm part of my memory of the book.

The stories are complex. Burdett is excellent at providing a bit of plot here, another bit there, seemingly unrelated or unconnected or a false lead, that finally come together in a conclusion that is a marvel when you see how the parts fit together.

Tying the plot and the location together are interesting and well developed characters. Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a detective with the Royal Thai Police, is the series' lead character. He is half Thai and half American which Burdett uses to contrast Eastern and Western cultures. His character is supported by his mother, a former prostitute who is part owner of the Old Man's Club which caters to oversexed, mature westerners; his boss, the corrupt Colonel Vikorn; his assistant Lek, a pre-op transsexual, a katoey; and a host of bar girls who figure into the stories.

Sonchai's character is complex and conflicted. On one side, his boss and the other detectives believe he has a mystical ability to understand westerners, the farang, because he is half American. On the other, Sonchai finds his job an impediment to his Thai side, following the Buddha, damaging his karma, finding enlightenment. I like the way that Burdett works Buddhist principles into the story as part of the culture. What we might call superstition figures prominently.

Everything that I have enjoyed in the previous three books is magnified here and I would say that Godfather of Kathmandu is the strongest books so far particularly in its development of Sonchai Jitpleecheep.

As with previous books in the series, Sonchai is telling the story to readers he refers to as farang. By identifying his audience as westerners, Sonchai can assume ignorance on their part allowing him to describe the intricacies of Thai culture.

As the novel begins, Sonchai has been dispatched by his boss Colonel Vikorn to a murder scene with a "hyper-rich, hyper-famous Hollywood farang as the victim. The ambitious and promotion hungry Detective Sukum is ready to write it off as a farang john murdered by a prostitute. Looking around the dive rented by the Fat Farang for his liaisons with prostitutes makes some sweet Sherlockian deductions proving murder that astound Sukum who knows he is out of his league.

Other things are happening to Sonchai at the same time. His relationship with his boss takes a strange turn after Vikorn watches a movie series and Sonchai suffers a personal tragedy. A trip to Kathmandu on behalf of Vikorn puts him in contact with a practitioner of apocalyptic Buddhism which tests his capability to manage his sanity. Sonchai's spiritual conflicts are a large part of the story but do not derail the plot in any way.

You are going to have to trust me that Burdett pulls all this together in what for me is a very satisfying ending. It is just too complex to coherently summarize. Godfather of Kathmandu could have served as the last book in the Bangkok series but Burdett says there will be one more Sonchai Jitpleecheep novel before he moves on to something different.