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.

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