Americans don’t fare well in novelist John Burdett’s Thailand. Burdett launched his steamy 2003 thriller, Bangkok 8, by locking a Marine in a Mercedes full of poisonous, methamphetamine-crazed snakes. His dense and discursive sequel, Bangkok Tattoo, begins with the disembowelment of CIA agent Mitch Turner. A ”big muscular naked American farang” (as Thais call Caucasians), Turner is discovered in his hotel ”minus a penis and a lot of blood” following an assignation with an enigmatic Thai hooker named Chanya. While Turner’s member is quickly accounted for (it’s on the bedside table), what has become of the skin that has literally been peeled off his back?
Don’t expect a headlong rush to find out. This is Thailand, farang, and they do things differently here, as narrator Sonchai Jitpleecheep might say. Just how differently soon becomes apparent. To start with, Sonchai, a police detective and practicing Buddhist, moonlights as a pimp at his mother’s brothel, the Old Man’s Club, so named because it caters to Viagra-popping American baby boomers. A ”tantric master in a G-string, a topless sorceress,” Chanya has long been the club’s top earner, able to elicit marriage proposals from roughly half of her clients. Out of loyalty to this rare ”superstar,” who may or may not be a cold-blooded killer, Sonchai and his boss decide to cover up rather than investigate Turner’s murder. They concoct a flimsy but serviceable story — that Chanya slaughtered Turner in self-defense as he sodomized her without a condom — and try to get on with life.
But that would be too easy. And it would rob Burdett of the opportunity to add baroque new flourishes to the strange and sensual portrait of contemporary Thailand that he began in Bangkok 8. Convoluted doesn’t begin to describe the course of the engrossing narrative, which encompasses the country’s drug trade, Muslim unrest in the south, the escapades of a stuttering Japanese tattooist on the run from the yakuza, and virtually every imaginable nook and cranny of Thailand’s sex trade.
The novel makes a shameless appeal to prurient interests. In the course of Sonchai’s circuitous investigation, we are treated to a search for prostitutes willing to service lesbians, a visit to the AIDS-ravaged transsexual community, and the personal history and physical assets of all 11 employees of the Old Man’s Club. (”Om, with a naturally boyish figure, has cut off her denims at the crotch…. She is from Phuket.”)
But Burdett’s attention to character and his studiously elegant prose style elevate this admittedly lurid work well above the usual raunchy thriller. Pensive, articulate Sonchai has a strong philosophical bent that makes him an excellent guide to the seamy Southeast Asian underworld. Burdett may have cast virtually all the Thais in this novel as drug dealers or sex workers, but they are also presented as complex characters worthy of respect. Not so the Americans. In Sonchai’s eyes, they are smelly, oversize barbarians, made stupid by lust and misplaced moral certainty, utterly lost without their to-do lists. The first few ”ugly farang” jokes come off, but Burdett overworks them mercilessly in this otherwise smart and fascinating novel. A stereotype is a stereotype, and the ugly American is one of the oldest in the book.