John Burdett Essay - Critical Essays


The groundwork for John Burdett’s critically acclaimed Sonchai Jitpleecheep mystery novels was laid in his second book, The Last Six Million Seconds. Like much of his later work, that novel is set in an exotic environment (Hong Kong), which allows for extensive sensual description. It deals with factual issues endemic to the region (the struggle for power among various factions in a time and place of political upheaval). It also features a detective of mixed blood (the half-Irish, half-Chinese protagonist, Inspector “Charlie” Chan Siukai) who brings a unique perspective to his investigation as he covers his culturally diverse territory.

Burdett has carried the strengths of The Last Six Million Seconds to his Sonchai novels, enhancing and deepening them. The first of the series, Bangkok Eight, is almost a sensory overload, a welter of pungent smells, strange sounds, foreign tastes, tactile textures as different as stone and silk, and sights captured as crisp as black-and-white snapshots, all of which contribute in capturing the atmosphere and frenetic pace of the Thai capital. Bangkok, though as bustling a metropolis as Hong Kong, has the sex industry at its heart and soul. This business, though presented openly and without shame throughout the red-light district twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week to an eager international customer base, the trade has dark and devious underpinnings. Associated with the sex industry is a full range of criminal behavior: brisk drug dealings, fierce battles over territory, sexual assaults, and perversions that are beyond the realm of social acceptance. Much of this criminal behavior leads to violence, resulting in deaths, which, if they occur in his district, Number 8, come to the attention of detective Sonchai, who works under the auspices of his commander, Colonel Vikorn.

A unique creation, Sonchai is a walking dichotomy. A Vietnam War-era product of the union between an anonymous American soldier and a young Thai prostitute, Sonchai embodies both Western brashness and Eastern circumspection. He has features that are a blend of Caucasian and Thai, and speaks both English and Thai fluently, so he is simultaneously a native and an outcast. He is equally attracted to and repelled by women. He lives in simplicity and poverty, though he sometimes has access to large sums of money. His noir outlook is darkness with light around the edges, thanks to Sonchai’s devotion to Buddhism; though he may be forced to resort to physical violence, inwardly he is in contemplation. He is a relatively incorruptible upholder of the law, yet he expediently violates certain provisions when necessary: to maintain alertness Sonchai occasionally ingests yaa baa, a drug that is a combination of methamphetamine and fertilizer; to relax he smokes ganja and sometimes drinks to excess; he accepts bribes; and he seeks personal vengeance. He is by turns respectful of and contemptuous toward his superior, Vikorn, who has become wealthy...

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