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.


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