A Buddhist cop asks us to see morality from his perspective

by James F. Sweeney, The Plain Dealer, July 1, 2007

Cleveland, OH (USA) -- The honest detective fight ing for justice in a corrupt and indifferent system is an old device, but author John Burdett puts a twist on it in his three "Bangkok" novels.

The protagonist in each is Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a half Western/half Thai policeman working Bangkok's seediest red-light district. A devout Buddhist and straight arrow, Jitpleecheep is surrounded by corruption, indifference and outright hostility.

But unlike many a Western literary detective, Jitpleecheep does not tilt at the system. Rather, he accepts its inevitability, admires its efficiency and even defends it against critics. But he still does what he must to seek justice.

As in its prequels, "Bangkok 8" and "Bangkok Tattoo," the new book finds Jitpleecheep wading through the city's sex industry. Someone has sent him a snuff film in which Damrong, a high-priced prostitute, is strangled during sex. The detective, who had a brief, obsessive affair with her years ago, takes the murder personally.

As he lies in bed next to his pregnant wife, Jitpleecheep is visited by Damrong's ghost, a succubus who leaves him spent and unable to drop the investigation no matter how much his astonishingly and unapologetically corrupt superior, Colonel Vikorn, wants him to.

Tracing the snuff film to a mysterious group of depraved and powerful businessmen is relatively easy for Jitpleecheep, but uncovering the truth about Damrong is more difficult. Though deceased, she continues, with the aid of her brother, a Buddhist monk, to manipulate the men she bewitched in life.

The novel treats prostitution matter-of-factly. Jitpleecheep, whose mother runs a brothel in which he owns an interest, explains to a female FBI agent why he detests pornography but not prostitution:

"The way I see it, we're like a realtor agency that deals in flesh instead of earth. Setting it all up artificially, though, in a film set, choreographing the whole thing so flabby overweights in Sussex and Bavaria, Minnesota and Normandy, can jerk off without having to tax their imaginations - that strikes me as downright immoral, a crime against life almost. I guess the real difference is that in [the brothel] people actually do it. There's a reality input."

As in his other Bangkok books, Burdett deploys Jitpleecheep to lecture readers on the West's immorality and the joined sins of consumerism and capitalism.

Scolding aside, "Bangkok Haunts" is a worthy entry in a series that invites readers to adjust their ideas of justice and sin.
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