“What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?” some five years ago the Canadian author Yann Martel – author of the Booker-winning novel Life of Pi (2001) – was asked in a Big Think video. His answer: “Read beyond what you want to write. If you want to write romance, great, but also read science fiction, read classics. If you aspire to be a literary writer…read Harlequins. You know, read outside, read beyond the narrow can (“canon”?) of what you particularly like. So read read read.”
I think this is great advice for any and everyone, not just writers. For the past eight years or so, I have mostly been into “literary” stuff, be it classic or contemporary. But I have come to realise that light, fast-paced commercial fiction (or mass market fiction, whatever you call it – I mean fiction that isn’t preoccupied with artistic merit) has its own charm and value, its own special way of capturing and commenting upon the spirit of the time.
As I am in the process of diversifying my reading list, the first “non-literary” author that I have picked up is John Burdett (Facebook page). An Englishman by birth, Burdett practised law in London and Hong Kong before retiring to write full time. He has lived in France and Spain but has spent most of his adult life in the Far East. He now divides his time between Bangkok and southwest France.
Since 2003, Burdett has been publishing his “Royal Thai Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep” series. Largely set in Bangkok, particularly in its seediest sectors, the thrillers are gritty and gory in their realism – but seductive and surreal in their exoticism. Critic Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times deemed the atmosphere a “noir world that’s part ”Blade Runner” and part Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles”.
The lead character Jitpleecheep is a “half-caste” – part-Thai, part-white. Born to a Thai bar girl and an American GI in the Vietnam era, he is a devout Buddhist, an arhat (“saintly”) cop who is surrounded by impurity at all times but never gets submerged in it. As of now, the collection consists of six crime novels: Bangkok 8: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (1) (2003), Bangkok Tattoo: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (2) (2005), Bangkok Haunts: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (3), The Godfather of Kathmandu: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (4) (2010), Vulture Peak: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (5) (2012) and The Bangkok Asset: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (6) (2015).
There is a chance some might find these novels voyeuristic, even exploitative of the Third World. Burdett prefers to call himself “an opportunist”. His first volume carries a note stating that Bangkok is one of the world’s great cities, all of which own red-light districts. The sex industry in Thailand in smaller per capita than many countries; “that it is more famous is probably because Thais are less coy about it.” He then lays emphasis on the fact that most visitors to the country have wonderful vacations without encountering any evidence of sleaze at all. “Indeed,” Burdett writes in his second book, “the vast majority of Thais follow a somewhat strict Buddhist code of conduct.” Having lived in Thailand myself, I couldn’t agree more.
That being said, the kingdom has valiantly struggled against the kind of corruption that is “endemic throughout the Far East” and this has been a topic across several journalistic articles and learned research projects, many of which, as an “opportunistic novelist”, Burdett has adapted for his crime novels, that is, entertainment in a very Western genre.
“From a novelist’s point of view it’s [Bangkok’s] a gift,” he has said, “because you’ve got so many different things, so many different themes all coming together. It’s a crucible.” The city of temples and brothels, where Buddhist monks in saffron robes walk the same streets as world-class gangsters.
I read the first two books in the series and liked them enough to want to read the rest someday. What I appreciated most was the research put into the novels, the anthropological sensitivity, the detailed discussions on Thai culture and religion, the critical yet affectionate rendering of Thai lifestyle. Below the dark and humorous surface of the detective stories (in which the very likable Sonchai expertly combines the forensic techniques of modern policing with his mystical knowledge of the spirit world) lie thought-provoking questions on the effects of globalisation, the collision of East and West. Most important are the explorations of morality and salvation. I will not analyse the plot of the first two novels at length but just share a few observations.
In this one, an African American marine called William Bradley is found in a locked Mercedes under a bridge, killed by a maddened python and a swarm of cobras. The story contains drug (yaa baa) smuggling, jade trade, the FBI, Russian mafia and sex-change surgery.
Read a short excerpt featuring Pisit, a radio show host, and a monk:
On a whim, Pisit calls the monk back to ask what he thinks of all this, and Western culture in general. After his drubbing just now he is in a Zen-ish sort of mood, not to say downright sarcastic: ‘Actually, the West is a Culture of Emergency: twisters in Texas, earthquakes in California, windchill in Chicago, drought, flood, famine, epidemics, drugs, wars on everything – watch out for that meteor and how much longer does the sun really have? Of course, if you didn’t believe you could control everything, there wouldn’t be an emergency, would there?
Sonchai remembers his abbot’s words:
There will be a massive shift of power from West to East in the middle of the twentieth-first century, caused not by war or economics but by a subtle alteration in consciousness. The new age of biotechnology will require a highly developed intuition which operates outside of logic, and anyway the internal destruction of Western society will have reached such a pass that most of your resources will be concentrated on managing loonies…The peoples of Southeast Asia, who have neever been poisoned by logical thought, will find themselves in the driver’s seat.
Here, a CIA agent Mitch Turner is found dead in The Old Man’s Club, a brothel owned jointly by Sonchai’s mother Nong and his boss Colonel Vikorn. Contains Thai diplomats and army generals, the Japanese tattoo business, Islam, opium addiction, post-9/11 insecurities.
Sonchai mentions a facet of prostitution:
These are all country girls, tough as water buffalo, wild as swans, who can’t believe how much they can make by providing to be polite, benevolent, guilt-ridden, rich, condom-conscious farang (“foreigner”) exactly the same service they would otherwise have to provide free without protection to rough drunken whoremongering husbands in their home villages. Good deal? Better believe it (don’t look at me like that, farang, when you know in your heart that capitalism makes whores of all of us). Most of the girls, being the sole breadwinners and therefore matriarchs, dispense the whole gamut of family business through the medium of the toilet (generally in our staff toilet whilset changing into their working gear), from care of the sick to hire-purchase agreements, from the chastisement of miscreants to the number of water buffalo to invest in this year, from marriages to abortions, religious duties and grave decisions as to who to vote for in local and national elections.
Watch a video of John Burdett from the 2013 Hong Kong Book Fair:
Featured: Street in Nana, Bangkok by User “Mark Fischer”, CC BY-SA 2.0, Flickr
A History of Thailand (2014) by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit
Southeast Asia: An Introductory History (1979/2016) by Milton Osborne
A Traveller’s History of Southeast Asia (2015) by J. M. Barwise and Nicholas J. White