Thursday, July 21, 2011

John Burdett's "The Godfather of Kathmandu": Book Review

Resisting the Chinese genocide of Tibet, Buddhism's apocalyptic appeal, a bit of Tantric sex, lots of lemon iced tea, conniving drug lords disguised as a police chief and army general, and sorrow over a devastating personal loss energize this, the fourth in a series about Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep's Bangkok investigations. Even as a first-time reader of Burdett, I could follow it all along, although the personal loss appears to either be off-stage or between this and the third novel. Intrigued by the topics and settings, I enjoyed this.

A rapid read, but intricate enough that it improves upon the mystery template. John Burdett's reflections upon crime, faith, karma, and greed deepen the tone here. Mimi Moi, a doctor with a sinister twist, and Tara, a Tantric emanation, both entice Sonchai as he pursues the case of a Hollywood filmmaker's disembowling and the clues that he seems to leave behind. He also is made "consigliere" as a go-between for a big drug shipment that challenges his own Buddhist ethics.

There's a spate of sudden leaps in logic midway that threw me off, so closely and rapidly do they arrive. The pace starts and goes erratically at times as Sonchai's own confrontation with the mantra he receives from Doctor Tietsen in Nepal makes this a curiously off-kilter look at how the West and East, in this half-Thai, half-Western detective clash. He, an outsider-as-insider and vice-versa as far as his fellow Thais perceive him, looks into a case that represents the appeal of a less capitalistic, less greedy way of life, even as that way of life is financed by drug running, corrupt bureaucrats, sex workers, and tricky Buddhists making their own living in a heartless global economy. Tietsen explains his motive for a scheme involving drugs-for-dharma: "We've invaded the world. But we've lost Tibet." (38)

The flavor of this book lingers in the pithy, wry, thoughtful dialogue. It mixes the everyday with the mysterious, One prostitute tells our protagonist: "After sex men go vague, if they don't fall asleep." (145) Sonchai notes on the next page how "witches are best approached by water at night without prior warning, right?" He's told by Moi: "Pets die. Children are a pain in the ass for the duration."

Tara tells him: "I think it is difficult for people with a Western background to understand how impersonal bliss really is." (174) Sonchai learns from a spectral informant: "Our extreme-- you might say homicidal-- aversion to pain and suffering makes us the ultimate apostates in the business of life." (210) He later muses how, based on Hong Kong's frenetic pursuit of goods, this is "what happens in societies with too much money and too few brothels: citizens are forced to play with themselves in cyberspace." (247)

Finally, in one of those extended speeches that in movies don't play well but which sometimes work in fiction, Robert Clive, founder of the first corporation, the East India Company, gets linked to the drug wars he helped expand into our globalized economy. Tietsen tells Sonchai: "He was the first to make the connection between arms and narcotics." He blames "the sociopathic nature of the modern corporation" on the British Empire's export of the opium trade, a private army, and a system to spread this all over the world by "narcotics, slaves, and weapons. It's the great tripod upon which our global civilization continues to be based, even if they have changed the labels and the slaves get health insurance." (287)

The novel takes about halfway to really get rolling, and supporting characters appear often underwritten but this may be since some of his co-workers earned more time in earlier installments. Not only Bangkok but Kathmandu and Hong Kong earn vivid description, and food, sights, sounds, and textures infuse these pages. So, despite a sometimes sudden leap by Sonchai and his helpers into logic that helps solve this case, and a tendency to rely on the deep meditation trance to get Sonchai in and out of his narrative, this proved a worthwhile tale, and one that ends with the Beijing 2008 Olympics and a subtle feature that you and I may have overlooked during its broadcasts of one of the latest imperial pageants that celebrate global domination.(Posted to Amazon US 10-24-10 & 10-28-10)

1 comment:

Toni Osborne said...

Great review. I find Burdett hard to get into even after reading all the books in this series.