John Burdett’s Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep made his first appearance in the 2003 novel, Bangkok 8. Since that time there have been three more novels featuring the Thai detective, with the most recent, The Godfather of Kathmandu, out this past spring. Many reviewers have noted that in this critically acclaimed series Western materialism confronts the spiritual approach of the East.
A reviewer for People magazine declared of Bangkok 8: “Like Thai cuisine, Burdett’s comic thriller blends spicy, sour, salty, and sweet – and makes for a delicious wake-up for jaded palates.” Carl Hiasson also had positive words about that series premier, declaring: “One of the most startling and provocative mysteries I’ve read in years. The characters are marvellously unique, the setting intoxicating, and the plot unwinds in dark illusory strands.”
Publishers Weekly termed the second in the series, Bangkok Tattoo, a “brilliantly cynical mystery thriller,” while the New Yorker found it “mesmerizing: a comic tour of the underbelly of Bangkok in pursuit of both a murderer and the sublime.” The third in the series, Bangkok Haunts, is, according to Publishers Weekly, “superb.” The New Yorker similarly lauded “the vivid portrait [Burdett] paints of contemporary Thai life and mores.” The Godfather of Kathmandu has been equally well-received, listed as a “Mystery of the Month” for Bookpage, and termed a “blissfully nutty caper” by Kirkus Reviews. Likewise, Booklist dubbed it a “whirlwind of a novel.”
John, it is wonderful to have you with us at Scene of the Crime. Bangkok is the setting for more than one crime series. Yours are incredibly evocative of the place. Could you share with us your connection to that city and to Thailand?
I divide my time between Bangkok and France, where I have a house. I first became familiar with Thailand when I worked in Hong Kong and needed frequent breaks from “the city that never sleeps”. Like a lot of people, I was quickly seduced by Thai charm and a culture that understood the importance of taking things easy.
What things about Thailand that make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Thailand is unique in so many ways, it is probably easier to refer to history. Although Siam was invaded briefly by the Japanese in WWII, and was subject to a British Resident during the colonial period, alone amongst its neighbours in SE Asia it was never colonised, its people never made to feel that their culture was inferior to that of invading imperialists. You end up with a traditional Buddhist attitude, with Buddhist values, bang in the middle of the 3rd millennium. Sure, you could cite countries like Bhutan or Nepal as being in similar circumstances, but what is impressive about Thailand is that it simultaneously nurtures a hip, high-tech, consumeristic culture in Bangkok : Bronze Age mysticism with silicon chips.
Did you consciously set out to use Bangkok and Thailand as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I don’t believe you can use Bangkok in a novel without it becoming a character. The power of the city is irresistible both to foreigners and to immigrants from the countryside, not to mention Bankokians themselves.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction?
I think I let BKK speak for itself. That’s the idea, anyway.
How does Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep?
The possibilities you urge: “native,” “Blow-in,” “reluctant,” etc assume that a consistent response to the city is possible. I doubt that. What I’ve tried to do is to show Sonchai’s varying response to BKK in all its variety – so you end up with a human heart responding from moment to moment in a continuous present.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Locally I believe I am much read by Westerner/Thai couples, which usually consist of a Western English-speaking man and a Thai woman. I think they enjoy the insights into the culture shock on both sides. Overseas, my biggest market is the U.S. where my books tend to be seen as a new twist in the international thriller genre. In developing countries, especially South America/Caribbean, I have been told that many details of life in BKK are similar if not identical: e.g. police corruption, pollution, overcrowding, naïve tourists etc.
Have you ever made any goofs in depicting your location or time period? Please share–the more humorous the better (we all have).
I tend to get the names of rivers wrong – in this part of the world they are so long and change names so often. I was told that I should not have referred to the river at Phnom Penh as the Mekong , for example, although it certainly feels like the Mekong every time I visit.
Of your Thailand novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
“The shantytown at Klong Toey is our biggest and in many ways our tidiest. Most of the huts are of similar size and height and the narrow walkways are kept riap roy, or spic and span, in true Thai style. There’s plenty of extreme squalor, of course, if you want to look for it, but generally people are getting on with their lives in near rent-free accommodations, which can be handy if you want to do a course in higher education, are a professional girl nearing the end of her shelf life, prefer recreational drugs to reality, or just plain hate work.” (Bangkok Haunts).
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
In my teens I fell hopelessly in love with D.H. Lawrence. I grew out of it eventually, but his acute sense of the spirit of place – and he pulled it off all over the world from Nottingham to Taos, to Venice, to Sydney – is simply incomparable and seems to have stayed with me as the highest bar in that respect.
What’s next for Sonchai?
Sonchai has the advantage (for his creator) of living in a perpetual identity crisis. I only have to point him at something new, and off he goes, spilling his eclectic guts all over my monitor.
John, thanks so much for taking the time to share Bangkok with us at Scene of the Crime.
For more information about John Burdett, see his homepage.