John Burdett Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

John Burdett has given the mystery world a unique detective working in a fresh literary setting. After demonstrating his talents for characterization, sharp dialogue, complex plotting, dark wit, and keen observation in writing his debut work, the courtroom drama-thriller A Personal History of Thirst (1996), he exploited an event of worldwide proportions for his second novel. The Last Six Million Seconds (1997) is centered on what was the impending transfer of power in Hong Kong from British to Chinese hands. As he had practiced law in Hong Kong for twelve years leading up to the takeover, his choice of subject matter was no surprise. However, although Southeast Asia, a vibrant, booming corner of the world, fascinated Burdett, Hong Kong was a creative dead end because the local film industry, led by the likes of John Woo and Jackie Chan, had already made the sights and sounds of the city familiar to an international audience. So Burdett, after traveling widely in search of the perfect setting, selected a lesser known though equally exotic and colorful setting for his next novels, moving the action a thousand miles south and west to the virgin territory—in the literary sense—of Bangkok. It was a wise choice as he was already acquainted with Bangkok from frequent recreational trips. Once the location was settled, Burdett immersed himself in the culture, history, and geography of his adopted country.

Burdett’s firsthand research and his personal experiences in dealing professionally with ethnically diverse individuals involved in a wide spectrum of criminal behavior show to good advantage in his Sonchai novels. He skillfully engages all of the readers’ senses in describing the intricacies and attitudes of Bangkok society, much of which revolves around the world’s most active and open sex trade. He brings to life intriguing characters who are engaged directly or peripherally with the sex industry. His hero, an observant, introspective hard-boiled detective slightly softened with the pacifist tenets of Buddhism and susceptible to all the temptations that surround him, is likable despite his many faults. All these qualities have brought Burdett a warm reception from readers and critics alike, though acceptance of the Sonchai novels in the United States has been slower than in other parts of the world.

John Burdett Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Anderson, Patrick. The Triumph of the Thriller: How Cops, Crooks, and Cannibals Captured Popular Fiction. New York: Random House, 2007. Contains a brief biography of Burdett along with analysis of Bangkok Eight and Bangkok Tattoo.

Dunn, Adam. “Crime and Cops, Thai-Style.” Review of Bangkok Eight, by John Burdett. Publishers Weekly 250, no. 19 (May 12, 2003): 41-42. A starred review of Bangkok Eight, termed part thriller, part mystery, and part exploration of Thai attitudes toward sex, plus a brief interview with Burdett, who notes difficulties in interesting American audiences in non-American topics. Though praising the author’s fresh approach to noir themes, the structure, and the depth of the novel, the review mildly criticizes the anticlimactic final chapter.

Grossman, Lev. “If You Read Only One Mystery Novel This Summer . . . Oh, Who Are We Trying to Kid? There’s No Way We Could Choose Just One: Here Are Six of the Season’s Twistiest, Tautest, Most Tantalizing Tales of Sleuthery.” Review of Bangkok Eight, by John Burdett. Time, August 11, 2003, 58-60. This highly favorable review cites the exotic feel and flavor of the novel, which is featured alongside new works by Walter Mosley, Mark Haddon, and others.

Hepner, Will. Review of The Last Six Million Seconds, by John Burdett. Library Journal 122, no. 2 (February 1, 1997): 104. The reviewer praises the novel for its protagonist, Hong Kong Royal Police chief “Charlie” Chan, who employs forensics and bureaucratic maneuvering to untangle a triple murder. The reviewer also notes the good characterizations, excellent use of the details of locale, and the complex plot.

Nathan, Paul. “Rights: Road from Hong Kong.” Publishers Weekly 243, no. 7 (April 22, 1996): 24. A brief history of how Burdett’s A Personal History of Thirst was brought from manuscript to print; includes details of film rights for the author’s first two novels.

Publishers Weekly. Review of A Personal History of Thirst, by John Burdett. 242, no. 51 (December 18, 1995): 41. A favorable review that calls attention to the novel’s underlying theme: the highlighting of ironies in the British class system. The reviewer notes the novel’s three-part structure and terms it a “sharp-eyed morality tale.”

Wright, David. Review of Bangkok Eight, by John Burdett. Library Journal 128, no. 10 (June 1, 2003): 163. A highly favorable review that pays particular tribute to the author’s highly original sleuth; the consistent pace of a plot that encompasses psychological, cultural, metaphysical and mysterious conundrums; and the evocative, exotic portrayal of the Thai capital.