Sunday, February 27, 2011

Interview with John Burdett, Creator of Bangkok 8 Series

John Burdett is a British international lawyer, traveler, and practicing Buddhist best known for his creation of the Bangkok 8 detective series, a chilling and sometimes comic glimpse into crimes and corruption in Thailand's underworld. In addition, he is the author of The Last Six Million Seconds and A Personal History of Thirst. Mr. Burdett corresponded recently about his writing, meditation, and the latest installment in his series, The Godfather of Kathmandu.

BurnThroughBooks: What inspired you to feature Tibet so prominently in this new book?

John Burdett: Two things. I knew nothing of Buddhism, aside from a kind of hippy fashion statement in the seventies in north London, until I started researching the first Sonchai book. I began with the Dalai Lama's books and was surprised and impressed - but with all respect to him, it seemed obvious that he was aiming at a mainstream western audience. Soon I began to understand the difference between Theravada (which is the Thai form) and Mahayana, and felt obliged to concentrate on Theravada as it is practised here - for which I have a great deal of respect. At the same time I continued to make frequent visits to Nepal, which I had been visiting since 1982 and which is one of the first places of refuge for those fleeing Tibet. When I started looking around for themes for "Godfather", the Kathmandu/Tibetan connection was irresistible, along with the very exotic form of Mahayana they practice there.

BTB: I was really interested in the power of mantras, as described in this book. As a writer and meditator, what's your experience with centering and focusing tools?

JB: Briefly, what the ancients knew about the human mind, especially but not exclusively the Buddhists, is - well - mind blowing. Even a modest couple of steps on that path brings extraordinary results. One realises that the mind is universal - by shrinking it to conform with egoic and social needs one loses 99%, but this can be retrieved with these exercises. Mantras of course are merely one tool in the tool box; but with them one can begin to retrieve some of what has been lost in the modernist war on reality.

BTB: What do Thai and Western cops think of your portrayal of the Thai law enforcement culture?

JB: I try to follow Thai rules here: I make no negative comment about the royal family (I am in any case a strong admirer of the king) or the Sangha, but you only have to spend a short time in Thailand to realise that corruption in general and among the police in particular is a perennial topic of news and conversation - like the weather in England. Of course I use dramatic exaggeration to make the point, but the underlying theme is one which you find in the news daily and is frankly admitted by senior members of government. You may have heard of the "Hello Kitty" campaign designed to impugn the manhood of wayward cops. Not something you come across elsewhere as far as I know. I think those in the law enforcement industry understand very well where I'm coming from.

BTB: In an interview, you described your protagonist Sonchai Jitpleecheep as an offspring of your experience with vipassana meditation. Can you tell me about the earliest incarnation of this character? How did his character change between your first drafts and the publication of the first novel.

JB: I think my comment was probably meant to say that I often think of how the world looks if one is using a Buddhist perspective not merely as an intellectual exercise, but an imaginative one where you contrast the evolutionary opportunity of vipassana with the extremely abrasive experiences of everyday life. Naturally, since I try to meditate myself, Sonchai's day-to-day experiences change and develop along with my own. There is no constant but change.

BTB: How do you interpret Western audiences' appetite for the Buddhist perspective described in your novels?

JB: For a great many westerners, especially perhaps Americans, the post-Christian world has left a huge hole. A number are embracing Islam, others various forms of Christian and other cults. To my mind these alternatives still leave a gap between our Western scientific/analytical training, which has brought so much benefit in terms of technology, and the teaching of the prophets. In Buddhism there is no such gap: the Buddha had a very scientific mind and perfectly understood the power of logic to take us a good way along the path and to test our experiences. He just happened to be more advanced and courageous than our scientists: even logic dissolves in Emptiness - it's just that astro physics hasn't quite got there yet. Those elusive sub-atomic particles though, and the behaviour of photons: it looks like we're getting close.

BTB: Do you have any favorite spots in Bangkok that you'd recommend to new visitors and casual tourists?

JB: Everyone should make a river trip of one kind or another. If you don't like hackneyed tourist sites, just take a riverboat for about 5 Baht, and remember that for half a millennium Bangkok was a kind of Venice, where they used the klongs (canals) to get about.

John Burdett's next installment in the Bangkok 8 series, Vulture Peak, is due out January 2012.

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.