A former history professor, Tom Miller
is a novelist and essayist. His most recent
novel is Full
Court Press (2000). His reviews
and essays have appeared in numerous books,
journals, and newspapers, including The
Encyclopedia of Southern History, American
History Illustrated, the Chicago
Tribune, and the Des Moines Register.
He also is a former Army officer and Vietnam
Listen up farang. Sonchai Jitpleecheep, Bangkok's last remaining honest policeman, is back, and he's matching wits with CIA agents, Japanese gangsters, Thai Muslims, and a mad tattoo artist. Readers first met Sonchai in Bangkok 8, Burdett's enormously successful thriller set against the backdrop of Thailand's legendary sex trade. In Bangkok Tattoo, Burdett returns to the scene of that triumph and reprises some of the most compelling characters in recent fiction. In addition to his reluctant hero -- the half-caste son of an American GI and a Bangkok "working girl" from the Vietnam era -- there are his boss Police Colonel Vikorn, brilliant and engagingly corrupt; Pichai, his dead partner who reveals clues to him during meditation; and Pisit, a talk-radio host who dispenses Thai-dyed wisdom. Stir into the mix a Van Gogh with tattoo needles, a schizophrenic CIA agent, and an irresistible Thai whore and you've got a page-turning pot-boiler.
The whore, Chanya, is not only beautiful but also entrepreneurial, and a few years earlier had slipped into America on a fake passport and visa to make her fortune. After stops in Texas and Las Vegas, she settled in D.C., and it was there that she met Mitch Turner, a neurotic CIA agent, who became obsessed with her. After 9/11, Chanya, fearing exposure as an illegal, returned home, and a despondent Mitch volunteered for an assignment to southern Thailand to watch for al-Qaeda operatives among the Muslims there.
Mitch's primary objective, of course, is to find Chanya. When he does, everything goes south in a hurry. Slowly coming unglued in primitive southern Thailand, Mitch falls under the spell of opium and a Muslim imam. And when he visits Chanya in Bangkok where she's working at a sex bar owned by Colonel Vikorn and run by Sonchai's mother, he turns up dead in his hotel room -- his penis severed and the skin flayed from his back. Chanya, who was in his room, is the primary suspect. Col. Vikorn concocts a story of self-defense to protect his star employee, but it begins to unravel when two CIA agents looking for a terrorist connection to Mitch's death show up to investigate.
When additional victims with severed penises and flayed skin turn up -- including one of the CIA agents -- Sonchai goes looking for clues in the city's jumble of bars and brothels. His search eventually leads to a Japanese tattoo artist whose own whole-body tattoo includes a rendering of the Battle of Midway on his penis. That's as far as we can go farang without giving away too much. As you know, karma is everything, and we hope to come back as a football hero. So, we have to be careful not to spoil the ending for anyone. Wait. There is no ending. Except nirvana. And, we're not there yet.
John Burdett bills himself as a non-practicing lawyer. What's that about? Ego? Like, I'm smart enough to graduate law school, but I wouldn't stoop to actually practicing. He'd better watch out or in his next incarnation he'll be a public defender. Instead of the law, Burdett worked in Hong Kong for a British firm before becoming a writer. A frequent visitor to Thailand, Burdett displays a surprisingly detailed knowledge of Thai culture for a farang (Caucasian; the term is neutral but in some contexts can be unflattering.) His description of the seamy underside of Bangkok is compelling but non-judgmental, and his characters are sharply-drawn and refreshingly unique. Moreover, he has obviously spent some time studying Buddhism and artfully weaves its strictures into his narrative. For an unenlightened farang, that's an added bonus.
Even though it's a sequel, Bangkok Tattoo can stand alone as a work of fiction. Readers who missed Bangkok 8, however, might want to begin there. It's just been released in paperback (Vintage Books, $12.95). The two share the same setting and many of the same characters. Both also benefit from non-traditional plot twists. In Bangkok 8, Detective Jitpleecheep investigates the murder by snakes (on speed, no less) of a black American Marine. The case is personal for Sonchai whose partner and soul brother Pichai is killed by the same snakes. Sonchai is joined in his search for revenge (and the killers) by a fascinating cast of characters including a sexually frustrated FBI agent, and their search through the Bangkok underworld is suspenseful, entertaining, and ultimately surprising. If you're looking for a change-of-pace from conventional thrillers, maybe it's time you tried Thai.