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.