Sonchai Jitpleecheep—John Burdett’s inimitable Royal Thai Police detective with the hard-bitten demeanor and the Buddhist soul—is summoned to the most shocking and intriguing crime scene of his career. Solving the murder could mean a promotion, but Sonchai, reeling from a personal tragedy, is more interested in Tietsin, an exiled Tibetan lama based in Kathmandu who has become his guru.
There are, however, obstacles in Sonchai’s path to nirvana. Police Colonel Vikorn has just named Sonchai his consigliere (he’s been studying The Godfather on DVD): to troubleshoot, babysit, defuse, procure, reconnoiter—do whatever needs to be done in Vikorn’s ongoing battle with Army General Zinna for control of Bangkok’s network of illegal enterprises. And though Tietsin is enlightened and (eerily) charismatic, he also has forty million dollars’ worth of heroin for sale. If Sonchai truly wants to be an initiate into Tietsin’s “apocalyptic Buddhism,” he has to pull off a deal that will bring Vikorn and Zinna to the same side of the table. Further complicating the challenge is Tara: a Tantric practitioner who captivates Sonchai with her remarkable otherworldly techniques.
Here is Sonchai put to the extreme test—as a cop, as a Buddhist, as an impossibly earthbound man—in John Burdett’s most wildly inventive, darkly comic, and wickedly entertaining novel yet.
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John Burdett is the author of A Personal History of Thirst, The Last Six Million Seconds, Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts. He divides his time between Thailand and France.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Ours is an age of enforced psychosis. I’ll forgive yours, farang, if you’ll forgive mine—but let’s talk about it later. Right now I’m on the back of a motorbike taxi hurtling toward a to-die-for little murder off Soi 4/4, Sukhumvit. My boss, Colonel Vikorn, called me at home with the good news that he wants me on the case because the victim is said to be some hyper-rich, hyper-famous Hollywood farang and he doesn’t need poor Detective Sukum screwing up with the media. We’ll get to Detective Sukum; for the moment picture me, if you will, a Eurasian Bangkok cop on my way to one of our most popular red-light districts with a Force 8 tropical wind in my face causing eyes to tear and ears to itch, where there awaits an overweight dead Westerner.
I’m nearly there. With a little urging my motorbike jockey drives up onto the sidewalk to avoid the massive traffic jam at the Soi 4 junction with Sukhumvit, weaves in between a long line of cooked-food vendors busy feeding the whores from Nana Plaza who have just gotten up (it’s about eleven in the morning), slaloms between a mango seller and a lamppost, returns to the tarmac with the usual jolt to the lower spine, and now we’re slowing to swerve into Subsoi 4. (Should one add the two fours to make the lucky number eight, or should one accept the stark warning: two fours mean death twice within the Cantonese luck system, which has taken over the world as a vital component of globalization?) Finally, here we are with a couple of squad cars and a forensic van in the parking area of the flophouse to welcome yours truly on this fair morning.
Also waiting for me is my long-haired assistant, Lek, a katoey— transsexual—who has not yet scraped together the courage or the funds for the final op. He avoids the supernatural brightness in my eyes (I’ve been meditating all night) to inform me, sotto voce, that Detective Sukum is here before me and has already developed possessive feelings toward the cadaver. The good Sukum is half a grade above me, and we are rivals for promotion. Like any jungle carnivore, Sukum is hunched over the kill as if it were all his own work—and who can blame him? Necrophilia is a professional hazard on any murder squad, and I have no doubt my rival is slobbering over his magnificent prize, just as if he had come across the Koh-i-noor diamond in a sewer. Within the value system into which we were all inducted at cadet school, this murder is everyone’s definition of ruang yai: a big one. It will be interesting to see how Sukum handles my inconvenient arrival. I think I might be able to surprise him.
Lek leads me past the guards’ hut into the parking deck which is also the entrance area for a ten-story apartment building that was erected in a hurry fifteen years ago in order to profit on a no-frills basis from the sexual frustration of Western men over the age of forty: a fail-proof business decision, the owners got their money back in the first three years and it’s been honey all the way ever since. Paint is chipped and flaking from the walls, revealing white plaster with occasional graffiti ( Fuck you, farang, in Thai; Sarlee, you were so good last night, in English); the lift is tiny—even the slim Lek and I find ourselves embarrassingly close for a moment. (Our clash of colognes reveals our sexual orientations. He will use nothing less than Chanel No. 5, which he begs from my mother, Nong; mine is a rugged, take-no-prisoners little number from Armani.)
“This could be one for the FBI,” I say in the elevator.
“She’s stuck in Virginia,” Lek says. “Poor little thing broke her arm during combat training. She was fighting two instructors at the same time, and of course they both came off worse, but she still can’t really call herself one of the boys because she’s in love with me. Don’t tell her I said that.”
“She sent me an e-mail yesterday.”
Kimberley Jones, an FBI agent, is a friend of mine and Lek’s. Especially Lek’s. It’s a long story. She worked with me on a few cases of an international nature and fell in love with Lek, which awkward fact has confused the hell out of her. Does her lust for a transsexual make her a dyke or not? I fear there is little in your culture, farang, to provide guidance on this conundrum—so she calls me all the time.
The corridor on the fourth floor leads to room 422, where two uniformed cops are stationed.
They part to let us into the apartment, where a massive dead American at least six feet long waits propped up in semi-sitting position on a bed wearing only a gigantic pair of shorts, over the top of which a great wormy mass of intestines has flopped like tripe in a butcher’s shop. (His bed is so narrow that parts of his flesh sag over each side, and one has to wonder how he coped when engaged in sexual congress.) The drama of this center-screen image at first makes the various slim Thai cops and forensic technicians seem like a chorus to a Greek tragedy. Then Sukum steps forward.
Detective Sukum Montri is a good-looking Thai cop in his early thirties, very upright and proper when not consumed by fear, aggression, and lust—like the rest of us; but right now I discern in his eyes the fire of one who has decided that this is the moment when the fig leaf of comradeship must be dropped by both protagonists to reveal the competing stiffness of their virile members. Well, I have good news for him: today, thanks to the way my psychosis is hanging, I’m all metas—Sanskrit for “loving-kindness.” However, it is important not to spoil people. I shall break the good news that I don’t give a damn about promotion today—or for the rest of my life—later. For the moment, let us enjoy Sukum.
He wears a black jacket, black pants, white shirt, thin pink nylon tie (pink because it’s Tuesday—our days of the week are color coded), all items generic, i.e., not good enough to qualify as fakes. The jacket is particularly narrow at the shoulders, pinching under the arms and badly crumpled, even though I’m sure it was freshly pressed yesterday. (Our gifted imitators of French and Italian haute couture would never be so crass; Sukum’s tailor, if he has one, must be Thai Chinese of the old cloth-saving school.)
“Good morning, Detective.” I take careful note of the position of his hands as he wais me (palms pressed together and raised to mouth level, with precisely the right mindful pause), before I wai him back in exactly the same way. Sukum coughs. “It’s very kind of you to rush over to help me out,” he says. I grunt noncommittally, causing a brief grin to cross Lek’s face.
“Of course your special input will be most welcome.” Sukum is talking about my perfect English, which I learned from my mother’s customers, and my half-farang blood, which gives me a unique insight into the mysterious Western mind.
“Oh, yes. But let’s not get carried away.”
Here Sukum drops his tone almost to a whisper. “Let me be frank: the unwritten rule that you get farang murders only applies when the murderer is also farang. It doesn’t apply when a Thai whore snuffs a farang.”
I insert the pinkie of my left hand into my left ear, which is still itching from the motorbike ride, and work the wax around a bit. “Really? Forgive me, Khun Sukum, but is there not a failure of logic in what you have just said? How would one know until the end of the case if the perp were Thai or farang?”
“I knew you were going to say that,” he snaps. “Look, this is obviously a Thai hit.” I ostentatiously move my eyes up and down the gash from the victim’s solar plexus almost to the pubic area; the corpse is so massive it is hard to imagine a little Thai girl standing on tippy-toe so she can get a good angle with the boning knife. I allow Sukum a skeptical stare. “Okay, it’s a bit ambitious for a girl, but you know how they go when they get angry. Maybe he insisted on buggering her and she got mad—our girls can be picky these days.”
“But didn’t I hear someone say that he’s famous?”
“You mean it’s a paid hit? Maybe, but if it’s a hit, it’s bound to be by a Thai. In Thailand ninety-nine point nine percent of professional hits are by Thais,” he says patriotically.
“Is that an official statistic? Perhaps you are right, Khun Sukum. Mind if I look around?”
Mostly I’m staring at the dead American. His hair is long and gray and swept back in a ponytail; a gray beard expands an already gigantic face. His mouth is half open, and a little blood is trickling from one corner. When I shift my glance to the rest of the apartment, I immediately become mesmerized by the books. It occurs to me that Sukum has no English.
I take a couple of surreptitious steps in the direction of the bookshelves, which are thinly populated with a set of novels and screenplays. My eyes fixate insanely when I come to a collection of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe. I turn my back so Sukum cannot see the intensely puzzled frown on my face, which only increases when I check the other titles. I finally manage to tear my eyes away, and pace the room for a moment. I am careful not to take any more notice of the bookshelves. For a moment my eyes rest on the cheap cathode-ray TV on a stand with a DVD player hooked up to it on a lower shelf.
“Khun Sukum,” I say, my hands clasped gently behind my back as I pace, “would you do me the honor of indulging a whim of mine? Would you open the victim’s mouth and tell me if you see there either a sm...
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