Monday, September 6, 2010

Review of Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett (Bantam Press, 2005)

Mitch Turner, a CIA agent, is found dead and dismembered in a Bangkok hotel room.  He’d been taken there by Chanya, the star prostitute at the The Old Man's Club, a venue run by Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep’s mother and his boss, Colonel Vikorn.  Vikorn’s initial strategy is to make out that Chanya had killed in self-defence.  Once it becomes clear that Turner is a CIA agent in the Muslim south of the country he invents a cover-up pointing at Al Qaeda, planting forensic evidence that can link the scene directly to the terrorist group.  Vikorn also has another agenda to stir into the mix; a long running battle with General Zinna, a corrupt army officer.  Jitpleecheep does his master’s bidding, but he’s increasingly drawn to the charms of Chanya, and the case exerts a strange fascination that tugs at both sides of his genetic inheritance (from his American father and Thai mother).  As he travels to the South and through the sex bars of Bangkok he becomes increasingly obsessed with discovering the truth behind Turner’s death.

For me, Bangkok Tattoo was a book of two halves.  The first half was interesting and entertaining, immersing the reader in the sights and sounds of the seedier side of Bangkok.  The story raced along and had plenty of intrigue and twists and turns.  In the second half the story unravelled and lost focus and direction.  The main plotline of the first half petered out and another thread came to dominate, and the story resorted more and more to show rather than tell, and less and less plausible.  The ending redeemed things a little, but it still felt a little flat and relied on Jitpleecheep forgetting that he had a vital piece of evidence in his possession.  In general, the characterisation is good, and Sonchai Jitpleecheep makes for an interesting central character, caught as he is between the worlds of the police and Bangkok nightlife, and American and Thai society, and the most of the other characters are colourful and engaging.  The exception is the Americans who are stereotypical, dull and by the numbers military types.  The observations of Thai society are informative, though I was somewhat dubious as to how prostitution, and lives and attitudes of the women who practice it, are portrayed.  Whilst I have little doubt that the nature of prostitution in Thailand is different to that in the West, I’m not at all convinced that its quite as Burdett portrays it; that paying for sex is an unproblematic transaction in Thai society where women willing engage with little emotional damage or other consequences.  After so much promise in the first half, it was a shame that the story fizzled out in the second.  That said, I’m still going to check out the first book in the series, Bangkok 8, as it’s clear that Burdett can tell a good yarn, and there’s enough promise here to merit another outing.

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