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Beyond Sex and Tourists in John Burdett's Bangkok

John Burdett's narrator-detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, sometimes comes to unwind on  the Chao Phraya River, which snakes through the center of Bangkok.
Michael Sullivan, NPR /
John Burdett's narrator-detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, sometimes comes to unwind on the Chao Phraya River, which snakes through the center of Bangkok.
Bangkok's Patpong district is where foreign tourists come looking for sex as well as pirated DVDs, designer bags, clothes and watches.
Michael Sullivan, NPR /
Bangkok's Patpong district is where foreign tourists come looking for sex as well as pirated DVDs, designer bags, clothes and watches.

John Burdett hasn't lived in Asia that long — about 20 years, on and off. First in Hong Kong as a lawyer, and more recently in Bangkok as a full-time novelist. But surely he must have lived here in a previous life — or lives. How else to explain his ability to make you feel the heat of the jungle along the Thai-Cambodian border?

The first you see of dawn is blood in the eastern treetops. And a universal glowering heralding another unbearable day. Twenty minutes later, the sky starts to blind while it boils and you do everything in your power to get out of the way. The sun itself is usually invisible behind a pulsating screen of humidity, so that the whole sky seems to radiate an unhealthy intensity of light and heat. — from Bangkok Haunts

Bangkok is at the heart of Burdett's novels, a city he says is unlike any other.

"The way it invites you in, the way it entices you in, where it seems like chaos when in fact every move is carefully planned by the people involved," he says. "There are rules governing absolutely everything which you don't notice. And at the same time, amidst all these cultural rules, the enforcement of them tends to be gentle and restrained, with an awareness that other human beings need plenty of space."

Burdett says that makes Bangkok a very easy city to live in, psychologically, despite the pollution and traffic.

Burdett's Bangkok is far more than the bizarre murders, corrupt cops and big-hearted bar girls of his novels, which include Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Haunts.

It's also the city as a living breathing, thing, like the Chao Phraya River that snakes through Bangkok's center. The waterway is where Burdett's narrator-detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep sometimes comes to unwind

In the midstream, brightly painted tugs tow barges with big eyes painted on their bows while longtails, with gigantic former bus engines with outboard propeller shafts about 15 feet long, roar up and down packed with tourists. The river is still the only jam-free thoroughfare for a lot of people commuting to work and back. So the long, thin passenger ferries are packed. They arrive and depart the floating docks among a frenzy of hysterical whistles from pilots at the stern, who like to give the impression of catastrophe narrowly averted. — from Bangkok Haunts

Patpong, arguably the most famous red-light district in the world, provides the backdrop of Burdett's stories of Bangkok's underworld and underclass. The district is filled with foreign tourists — known here as farangs — where sex is for sale. And so is just about everything else: pirated DVDs, designer bags, clothes and watches. And all this commercial activity, Burdett says, is a byproduct of the sex trade.

Burdett spent a fair bit of time doing research in Bangkok's bars, where the girls wear numbers to make selection easier. Once, he was soaking up the atmosphere, getting to know the girls and their stories. The writer was hoping to find a cop who would be his guide into the subculture.

And then came his epiphany.

"I realized I didn't need the cop because I knew quite a bit about police procedure anyway," he says.

Burdett had practiced criminal law elsewhere in Asia, and police procedure doesn't change that much from one country to another, he says.

"What I needed was the human interest," he says. "I needed something that would grab at the guts beyond the normal police procedural."

He began listening to the bar girls' stories, and visited their home villages.

He saw "how they were living, how many people they were supporting, I realized, what could be better?"

The girls working Bangkok's bars, he says, are the real protagonists of his stories, and Detective Jitpleecheep is their mouthpiece. He's the son of a former Thai bar girl and an American soldier, with a foot planted firmly in both cultures. Jitpleecheep is deeply spiritual yet cynical, with an unflinching but sympathetic eye for both the hunter and the prey, though it's sometimes hard to tell which is which.

It is twenty minutes past midnight. Just the hour when the great game reaches its climax. Shy men who've been saying no all night find their will sapped by drink and the ceaseless attention of near naked young women. All of a sudden the prospect of going back to the hotel alone is more appalling and somehow more immoral — a crime against life even — than congress with a prostitute. Skillfully, the girls build a dream world of fantasy within the Western mind — a world which is mysteriously difficult to let go of. And the girls too, have heir fantasies of finding the farang who will support them for life, or, failing that, take them to the West and relieve them for a year or two of this living hand to mouth. Not to mention the indignity of their trade. — from Bangkok 8

Burdett is at work on his fourth — and probably, he says, last — detective Sonchai novel. Though it's unlikely he's done writing about the city he now calls home.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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