Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Godfather of Kathmandu, by John Burdett

Random House
295 pages
$8.48 at

If you're not familiar with John Burdett's work, get up from your computer, like now, and pick up Bangkok 8 at the library. I won't ruin the surprise in this fourth installment of the series. Readers already acquainted with the previous three books will be enthralled by this latest chapter.

To boil this complicated plot down to its bare essentials isn't as important as stating that Burdett does awesome, awesome things with the mystery genre, Theraveda and Tibetan Buddhism, and the Bangkok's backstreet underworld. It's not enough for mystery books to present just another interesting murder or theft for their audiences. Writers need to bring something new to the table to keep the genre interesting, and John Burdett's foray into the Bangkok underground does exactly that. This is something really wondrous.

Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a half-western, half-Thai, all-Buddhist detective is our guide and ambassador as he narrates assignments in Thailand's capital. Only a few of these are related to solving crimes. Among the priorities competing with his detective work are assisting his mother with her brothel and facilitating a $40 million heroin deal for his boss, Police Chief Vikorn. He manages these deftly, and from a detached perspective; Sonchai's first obedience is to karma and merit.

Kathmandu's plot largely circles a Tibetan mystic's scheme to sell a massive shipment of heroin to Sonchai's boss and finance an invasion of China, and a bizarre pharmaphiliac Grand Dame's involvement in the gory death of an American movie director. The story plays out in stoic, noir tones grounded in the Buddhist perspective: reincarnation, protector deities, karma, and grudge. Sonchai's half-caste ability to tread the line between West and Thai makes him our ambassador in this world: There's more to this life than what you can imagine, farang, but come with me. I'll be your guide. A B&N reviewer remarked that the Bangkok series are as much about crime fiction as they are about spiritual education. Burdett describes his subjects and environment with an ease that contrasts starkly with travel book descriptions. This is his home and comfort zone.

I could dwell on the plot, but I'd like to skip ahead to one of the most interesting bits, a theme that pops up repeatedly throughout the book: Om Mani Padme Hum. A guide in Bhutan told me this translates to "Hail to the Jewel of the Sacred Lotus," but the translation lacks the interpretation and context that gives it relevance to practitioners. Mantras are repeated phrases whose utterances are capable of effecting spiritual transformation. Over the phone, Sonchai's mystic shares with him a potent and dangerous mantra to sharpen his mind. "He doesn't mess around," Sonchai's disfigured lover Tara later warns him. "What you call psychosis, for him is a path to health." Later, Sonchai is haunted by visions of a blade wheel that tears him apart, of hell, and of a dark stupa with a base composed of the souls of poisoned karma.

It's heavy imagery, but the content is accessible to any reader. And as far as I know, it's also new territory in popular fiction. Burdett has lifted a stone to reveal the dark and loamy underside to the sky; but we readers are the creatures under the rock, exposed now to a strange and dangerous cosmology.

PostScript: I had the chance to correspond with the author about his writing and this new book. Click here to read the complete interview.

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