What I've Been Reading: Being John Burdett

Dec 22, 2011

Series are tricky, whether books or movies. Often, writers and directors put everything into a first work without realizing more will be required, whether due to overwhelming success, over-riding ego, or a combination of the two. Sometimes it's better to stop at one, but not always. To my recollection, The Godfather Part II was superior to The Godfather. Peter Jackson's films of The Lord Of The Rings did all three books justice, while The Godfather Part III is best left unmentioned. It's a wise creator who knows to scram when the scrammings good. The temptation to continue is great, however, so it's not surprising when artists do just that.

Sometimes, fate has the final say. Stieg Larrson's fiction-writing career may have ended at just the right time. To my mind, the first book in the Millennium series was quite good, and the pacing remarkable. The second book was pretty good, but less consistent. The third was a bit of a snore, more dialectic than thriller, with Lisbeth Salander sidelined for much of it, though it still finished with a rip-roaring conclusion. I've since heard Larrson's writing described as "literary crack." I wouldn't disagree. While much of it reads like reportage disguised as fiction, as writing it's enviously addictive: 27 million copies sold as of March 2010. Apparently, Larrson had a total of ten volumes planned. I suspect any subsequent books may have diminished the estimation of the series overall.

Sometimes, an author simply outgrows his work. Ethan Mordden's Buddies Trilogy, the justly famous series on coming out and staying out, is perfection of a kind. For some reason, Mordden saw fit to add two subsequent volumes, where his disillusionment with his prior writing is evident. He seems to be downplaying the series' success, warning that his popular portrayals of gay life were unrealistic. (Some might say the jaded, cynical American version of Queer As Folk was closer to the mark. Despite how it brought gay life even further out of the closet, I disliked the American series, and adored the original British version.) To my mind, what Mordden overlooked was that life looks different as we grow older. What seemed life-affirming in his twenties must have seemed sham in his fifties. And why wouldn't it? You don't want to be doing at fifty what you thought was a scream at twenty.

Thankfully, author John Burdett has not outgrown his "Bangkok" series, nor has he shown signs of ending it. Burdett is one of those rare creatures: a writer of literary-thrillers. It may be hard to discern, as his books are so funny. If you put Bangkok 8, his mystery about the wonderfully wonky Thai detective, Sonchai Jitplecheep, up against Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, however, you'd be hard put to say which is funnier, wiser, or more literary. Both books include plenty of death and some breathtaking turns of phrase, but because Burdett's book contains a murder mystery, it's relegated to the genre pile and overlooked as literature.

I suspect the British-born Burdett did not set out to write a series when he penned what would become the first of what are now four books and counting. (Apparently a fifth is on the way.) Bangkok 8 is so exquisitely wrought that you don't need more on finishing. It's only after the high of reading it fades that you want to revisit Burdett's brilliant and mesmerizing characters and their corrupt world. Thus Bangkok Tattoo, and so on.

What's interesting is that none of these books feels the same as its predecessor. In Burdett's case, however, his style changed rather than his outlook on life. What started off as satirical brilliance got darker with each book, though thankfully not less inventive. For what it's worth, here is my take on the first three books of the Bangkok series:

Bangkok 8 (2003)

Brilliant and original. I can't recall the last time I've been so jolted by what on the surface looks like an unassuming mystery with an "exotic" locale. In fact, it's far more than a mystery just as Buddhism, one of the book's themes, is far more than just a philosophy. In what has to be the smallest "locked room" mystery ever, an African-American marine dies a gruesome death sitting alone in a locked BMW stuck in a traffic jam. Still, it's a clear case of murder. Enter Sonchai Jitplecheep, the half-caste Thai detective and devout Buddhist, and one of the few Thai policemen not on the take. Burdett is effortlessly amusing as he follows his alter-ego, who solves the mystery all the while taking pains to explain the cultural relevance of his world to the western farang. That's you, dear reader. Burdett takes us deep inside the depths of eastern corruption and menace, while granting a unique insider's look into the notorious Thai sex trade.

Bangkok Tattoo (2005)

Darker in tone and conceptually even more monstrous than its predecessor, Bangkok 8, this book is nonetheless another work of comic genius. For me, Burdett ranks with the likes of John Lanchester, Junot Diaz and Zadie Smith (if that's not a unique collection, I don't know what is) for his brilliant, tongue-biting humour and genre-busting plots. This is the second book featuring Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the half-caste Thai Buddhist detective, and a cast of zanies who come and go as Sonchai tracks the murderer of a CIA agent. While the prose seldom reaches the inspired lunacy of its predecessor, the story's the thing to concentrate on here more than the comically profound soliloquies on the Buddhist conception of life as an inescapable interplay between being and nothingness.

Bangkok Haunts (2007)

Third in Burdett's brilliant Bangkok series, this is also the heaviest and least fun of his Thai murder mysteries. That's somewhat to its detriment, because the levity is as much a part of the reading enjoyment as the diabolically clever plotlines. Still, the story keeps you hooked. In this volume, Thai detective and devout Buddhist Sonchai Jitpleecheep exposes corruption and skulduggery when a snuff film of one of his amours sets him on a journey to unmask the killers. If you prefer your mysteries hard-boiled rather than droll, you may like this one best. In any case, if the series intrigues you, don't start here. Go all the way to the beginning with the marvellous Bangkok 8.

On The Runway

Dec 13, 2011

This week my newest book, Lake On The Mountain, is going to press. For a writer, that's the equivalent of being in a plane and taxiing down the runway. You're not quite airborne, but your seatbelt is snug and all the expectation is there.

The timing was propitious. Last month LOTM received a positive pre-review in Publisher's Weekly, the bible of the American publishing industry. A single glowing sentence from that review will now end up on the book's cover along with a blurb by Gail Bowen, one of Canada's most delightfully audacious writers and author of the highly successful Joanne Kilbourn mysteries. Both of these are great coups and the sort of thing writers and publishers dream of.

As with any journey, there's an anticipated place of arrival down the road. For me, as for most writers, that hoped-for destination is one of undying fame, financial success beyond my wildest dreams, and outrageous adulation from my readers. It's called "Dreamland." Few, if any, writers reach it in their lifetime, however, so in the meantime I've learned to enjoy the journey. Duty Free shopping, here I come.

Lake On The Mountain, the tale of a gay missing persons investigator and father of a teenage son, is a bit of a departure for me in one way, yet in another it's precisely where I've been heading for years. I intended it to be that rare, some would even say "apocryphal" animal, the literary-thriller.

Like most university-educated Canadians of my generation, I was raised to be a bit precious in my reading. Genre? Not for me. Nicht, nein, never. It was verboten! I sniffed my way through the romance section in bookstores. I didn't deign to crack open a mystery or a sci-fi book, what with all the wonderful CanLit novels to be read.

So how ironic to find myself the subject of genre discrimination. My first novel, A Cage of Bones, was refused by just about every publisher in Canada. Not because it wasn't well written or literary, but because it was in a genre barely acknowledged at the time: GayLit. In fact, I had to find a publisher outside the country to take it on. For all our literary affectations, Canadians were decidedly behind the times on that one. Not that I minded having a UK publisher first time out of the gate, however. They turned it into an international bestseller, something many Canadian publishers could not have done for me.

Learning I'd inadvertently become a genre writer made me see things differently. One day I picked up a copy of John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, wondering if it would be even half as good as the film. In fact, it was terrific. But I was suspicious. Should I admit I'd read it? Should I worry it might influence my writing?

Since then I've come across a considerable number of genre books and writers I feel can hold their heads up to anything being written today. Not to mention the success they achieve. In fact, you're far less likely to die the death of a starving artist if you can write outside the literary arena than in.

Ironically, the snobbery I've faced over genre writing has been a double-edged sword. Some of the most blatant discrimination has come from genre-philes who refuse to accept that a literary writer could or should make the cross-over. Our territory—keep out, is how they seem to think of it.

One of my most telling experiences came when I participated in a mystery writers' seminar in New Orleans, not long after the publication of my satirical thriller, The P-Town Murders. I talked about the difference between writing mysteries and literary fiction. At the time, I was set to publish my literary novel, The Honey Locust. Set in the Bosnian War, THL had taken me more than a decade to finish. I'd struggled with it greatly and certainly didn't want to have to repeat the effort. "The formula for writing mysteries is easier," I confided to my genre-loving audience, who gasped.

Apparently the F-word is about the worst thing you can say to a genre writer. "Where is this formula? Can I buy it somewhere?" snarled one curmudgeonly old fellow, who turned out to be a seasoned American mystery author. "Try Walgreen's," I suggested. "Second shelf on the right."

In fact, all good writing is based on a formula. Agatha Christie used one and so did Shakespeare. If you want to argue with them, grab a Ouija board and do your best. I can't help you there.

In the meantime, here I sit on the runway, waiting for my fifth title to be released. I no longer worry whether my books are considered genre or literary or something as yet uncategorized. It's a book. And I believe it's the best one I've written. Years from now, I may still believe it. I know that because of how proud I am of it and how right it seems when I re-read it.

I can feel the plane lifting.

Nov 16, 2011

With a new book coming out, there’s always anticipation to see how it’s going to be received. I’m happy to say Lake On The Mountain, my literary-thriller from Dundurn, had a great start this month with a very positive review in Publishers Weekly. Publication is slated for end of January 2012. For those of you disappointed with the delayed publication of Vanished In Vallarta, third in the Bradford Fairfax mystery series, I hope this will more than make up for the wait.

Oct 20, 2011

Fans of Don Shebib’s 1970 Canadian classic, Goin’ Down The Road, are in for a surprise of the pleasant variety. If, like me, you’ve been saying “They don’t make Canadian films like that any more,” then you will be thrilled to see Down The Road Again, as Shebib and a good number of the original cast revisit the story and give it an update truly worthy of its predecessor. Join Jayne Eastwood, the late-Cayle Chernin, Doug McGrath, and some talented newcomers for a return voyage in that unforgettable 1960 Chevy. You will love it.

Oct 10, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving! I've neglected my blog so long I couldn't recall the password. That's because I've been completing a new book. As I feel myself nearing the finishing line, it demands more and more time and attention. (Note to potential suitors: never marry a writer unless you like a lot of alone time.) In this case, I've been completing a second draft, not the final product. I put it to rest this morning. No doubt there'll be plenty of time to lose myself in a new draft quite soon.

July 18

Having fun with Paul Bellini around is a given. Taking over the Flying Beaver Pub last night, the former-Kids in the Hall writer performed his Flatus Maximus (it’s Latin, look it up.) Not exactly a performance piece, it consisted largely of Paul reading from his hilarious FAB columns (think Michael Musto sidelined in Toronto, as if that were possible), with an occasional side-splitting silly song (who knew!) thrown in for—what, even more comic relief from the already over the top comedy? Anyway, it was a quiet riot, culminating in the playback of one of the most awkward telephone interviews ever, as the intrepid Paul tried and failed to get some semblance of an answer to his quite reasonable questions from crotchety B’way legend Elaine Stritch, proving again that some things (and people) are beyond even the most laudable efforts, but not beyond comedy.

Jul 11

Went to the Met’s Die Walküre in HD tonight, part two of the Ring cycle production staged by Robert LePage. The set, referred to as “the machine”, was not as extensively used this time around, so the music took centre stage. James Levine’s conducting was nothing short of glorious. I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated Wagner so much. Bryn Terfel’s (Wotan) voice doesn’t excite me, but his acting was terrific, as was Susan Voigt’s (Brünnhilde). The star of the evening, for me (and many of the audience) was the German tenor, Jonas Kaufmann (Siegmund.) In terms of vocal ensemble work, this may become the definitive Ring for years to come. Really superb.

June 29

I can scarcely believe my luck this summer: first kd lang, then Aretha, now Dame Helen Mirren and Jeremy Irons with conductor Lorin Maazel. The latter three appeared in a joint evening of Shakespeare in music and words at the BlackCreek Summer Music Festival under the stars. Mirren and Irons performed a mini-version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream integrated in and around Maazel’s glorious conducting of Felix Mendelssohn’s music with the dynamic and youthful Castleton Orchestra and Chorus. A knockout!

June 25

A night with the Queen of Soul: As many Torontonians know, Aretha Franklin was in town for a free outdoor concert, making up for time off due to a bout with cancer last year. It was hard to know what to expect from a 69-year-old, post-surgery Aretha, but if she thought she was fit to perform then I knew it would be something to see. So did thousands of others, but everyone was friendly despite the close quarters, even if you stepped on a toe or two. (The audience was massive: take all the white people who came to the free kd lang concert last week and then add all the people of colour who didn’t come but should have. A very big event.) The only genuine disappointment was the poor organization that saw a VIP tent with too many awnings and flags obscuring the view, while a giant screen was positioned so far off that you couldn’t watch the real show in tandem with the monitor. That was just plain dumb. But we were there to pay homage to the queen, not to bitch. The first act was a bit tame as she flew through her old hits for the sing-a-long fans, but by the second half (after some truly awesome entr’acte jazz from her band) her voice had warmed up and she raised the roof. A twelve-minute rendition of Bridge over Troubled Waters (a song that in other hands can be so saccharine it hurts) showcased her gospel-raunch side. And what a side! I’ve lived with Aretha records for most of my life, but I’ve never experienced the fiery excitement she generates with a live audience. From that moment on, the fun never let up and we knew we were going to get what we came for. Freeway Of Love was the last great highlight of the evening for me, though the show went on for another quarter hour, ending at eleven-forty. Thank you, Queen of Soul. Thank you, TO Jazz Festival. It’s been a great time to be in Toronto.

June 17

So Vancouver had hockey riots. (What’s the surprise? It’s a game about barely suppressed violence, after all.) Toronto, on the other hand, had a free k.d. lang concert. I can now die happy, having heard lang sing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah live. I can barely remember the last time I cried in public (Well, yes I can, but I won’t mention it here.) Somehow, over the past twenty years, lang has gone from kitsch lesbian hillbilly to classic Canadian icon, all without getting staid and boring. Watching her perform has to be one of the most rapturous experiences on record, Canadian or otherwise. And the Siss Boom Bang is one of the best backup bands around. A superb evening. Thanks, Luminato!

May 18

What happens when you get a Shakespearean actor to direct a film about a Norse god? You get a terrifically entertaining action flick that doesn’t insult your intelligence. It’s funny, moving, wry and even educational (the gods forbid!) A cross between Henry V and Avatar, Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is a winner on all fronts. The only misstep is that it should have been 3D. If you didn’t enjoy it, you and I should never see a film together.

May 16

Recently watched the first two episodes of the 2011 Doctor Who. If you haven't seen it since you were a kid, try again. It's an updated, camp version of what was almost an embarrassment. Still, I was disappointed with this season's opener for several reasons. First, it's set in the US. Is it a coincidence that the Doctor’s rules of non-violence are being over-stepped at a time when the media is screaming, “It’s a great time to be American!” after Bin Laden’s murder? (I’m far from being a Bin Laden apologist, but let’s call it what it is.) Second, Matt Smith’s comic brilliance is taking second place to Arthur Darvill (Rory)'s new heart-throb hairdo. (Not such a terrible thing, but I found Matt pretty sexy last year, for all his goofiness.) All this comes about since Russell T Davies left the show in the hands of Steven Moffat. Will I stop watching? Hmmm…well, no, not as long as Matt's still in it.

May 1

It's been a whirlwind week of performances. Wed saw me at a dress rehearsal of the COC's Ariadne Auf Naxos. If you think German opera isn't funny, this will change your mind. It’s an hysterical collision between comedy and tragedy. Adrianne Pieczonka stars as Ariadne, though she opted out of the second half of the rehearsal (to save her voice for the opening, I presume.) No great loss, because her understudy, whose name I missed, was a marvel. Jane Archibald is utterly charming as the upstaging tart Zerbinetta. The performance is uniformly praiseworthy.

Thu saw me at the Enwave for a performance by a unique dance duo, the tiny Yvonne Ng and the much larger Robert Glumbeck, who together make up Tiger Princess Dance Productions. It would be inadvisable to focus on their physical disparities, however, because the dance is even more unique, often hauntingly beautiful, and with a perfect blending of east and west.

Fri brought me back to the Tarragon Theatre (where I once endured an unpleasant season as part of the Young Playwrights' Unit) for the English premiere of Forests
, by Wajdi Mouawad. Mouawad is the writer of the critically acclaimed play, Scorched, now a brilliant, Oscar-nominated film Incendies from Quebec director Denis Villeneuve.

March 26, 2011

Happy one-hundredth birthday to writer Tennessee Williams, happy fifty-eighth birthday to artist Michael Ridler, and fond farewell to actor Elizabeth Taylor. As they say, thanks for the memories!

Mar 3

One of my fave things in Toronto is the World Stage Festival (sadly no longer a cohesive festival, but spread over a year.) Last night, writer Keith Garebian and I caught a feisty update of Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine. Acclaimed Dutch actor Halina Reijn gives a remarkable performance as a woman having a final, devastating phone conversation with a lover due to marry another woman in the morning. Moments before starting, Woody Harrelson, toque pulled well down, squeezed past and sat three seats away. Woody has always reminded me of my brother Mark, who lives two hours out of town. “What’s my brother doing at a Dutch play in Toronto on a cold Wednesday in March without telling me?” I wondered. Then I realized who it was. “Oh, it’s not my brother,” I thought. “It’s only Woody Harrelson.”

Feb 21, 2011

All good trips must end, and so we say goodbye to the leaping whales, the lime and papaya trees, and the margaritas. (Oh, the margaritas!) On the up side, I'm returning home with a complete draft of Bon Ton Roulez, the fourth adventure in the Bradford Fairfax series, set in New Orleans. Has anyone shoveled our sidewalk yet?

Feb 12, 2011

Welcome to Puerto Vallarta! I'm here getting my annual dose of vitamin D and working on the fourth Bradford Fairfax book, Bon Ton Roulez (which actually takes place in New Orleans. Oh well!) Today the humpback whales are actually jumping right out of the water in Banderas Bay. You can't beat that for glory!

Jan 25, 2011

Time to switch gears again. After finishing a solid draft of The Sulphur Springs Cure, a fun little mystery with an 82-year-old protagonist (think Miss Marple crossed with Auntie Mame), which I've been working on for awhile, I decided to lay that aside and go back to song writing. I'm now finishing the fourth song in a five-song suite, Flowers For Aña Calil, that I've been composing for soprano Lilac Caña. This is the final piece to be completed. The fourth piece is Puck's Song, by one William Shakespeare. It's the lightest of the five songs, but the one that has eluded me most. The first three songs are already recorded on Lilac's CD, Blossom (www.cdbaby.com/cd/LilacCana.) Do yourself a favour and check out this remarkable singer.


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