Friday, November 11, 2011
Bangkok 8 by John Burdett
The older I get, the more prone I am to borrowing from the library before I put down money for a book. I was especially hesitant to pick up John Burdett's Bangkok 8, fearing it would be the lurid and grotty sort of “Neon Noir” that British male authors seem to revel in: a cascade of depravity concluding with collapse. (James Ellroy, who writes precisely the sort of novels I most dislike, calls this book, "The last, most compelling word in thrillers.") But the premise held appeal: a murder to solve, another to avenge, both leading deep inside the clandestine world of the illicit jade trade. Lo and behold, the local library had a copy. The price was right!
Around the 200 page mark is a scene that led me to three crucial realizations. It takes place in the back parlour of a bar owned by a Russian pimp. It is a wide-ranging conversation involving the Russian, the book's detective narrator and his American partner, and several of the Russian's bar-girls, and it is fueled by vodka. Here's a snippet, early in the game:
“Every Thai cop apart from Sonchai is a world-class businessman. You simply can't beat them. If I'm not careful they hire the girls, then fine me the price of the the girl — for trafficking in women — less ten percent for my expenses. Not Sonchai,” says Iamskoy, about me. “He's an even worse businessman than me. That must be why I like him, he doesn't make me feel inferior.”
“I wondered,” I say, sipping more vodka.
“That and the fact that he's even more of a head case than me. You should have heard our last conversation. It was like Hindu science fiction. I guess he didn't enjoy it as much as I did, though, because he stayed away three years.”
“You passed out after insulting the Buddha.”
“I did? Why didn't you shoot me?”
“I didn't think you were alive.”
“Anyway, what did I say?”
“You said that Gautama Buddha was the greatest salesman in history.”
To Jones: “I was right. He was selling nothing.”
The group explores and debates the plasticity of identity — religious, national, cultural, individual, sexual, even gender — the various interlocutors monologing with greater passion as the scene builds. I was completely entranced, and realized: 1) I no longer cared if the narrator exacted his vow of vengeance, because I didn't want the book to end; 2) I hadn't read a scene of such compelling, plot-forwarding dialogue among a group of people since Dashiell Hammett or Robertson Davies, and 3) Hold on a sec: Robertson Davies?!
Yes, indeedy. Burdett is adept at playing playing with mystery, in every sense of the word, wreaking a subtle mischief on reader expectations. The chapters are short and easily consumed, but the sense of immersion they provide is exceedingly deep. I took frequent stops, to consider how a once-alien point-of-view had just been ingested as clear common sense. Burdett accomplishes that most valuable of novelistic achievements: making the foreign seem not just explicable, but familiar.
And now I must return this copy of the book to the library, while I wait for my copy to arrive in the mail — so that I can reread this fabulous book with a keener eye, and sharpened pencil.
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