I more or less liked Burdett's first Thai thriller (Bangkok Eight
), but felt that the second (Bangkok Tattoo) left quite a bit to be desired -- so much so that I didn't plan on reading this third in his series featuring Thai policeman Sonchai Jitpleecheep. However, I did eventually pick it up, and found it to be pretty much in line with the other two: strong on atmosphere and Thai culture, weak on plotting and pacing.
Burdett is great at capturing Bangkok and other parts of Thailand (in this book, the story makes excursions to Isan province and Phnom Phen, Cambodia). However, it's unfortunate that he does so with some of the most outlandishly lurid plots I've come across. In this case, the story revolves around a snuff film featuring a former employee and lover of Sonchai. Naturally, he feels compelled to investigate and bring the film's backers to justice -- even as his superior (Colonel Vikorn) has him overseeing a high-end porn film operation.
As in the first two books in the series, the story brims with explanations of Thai culture and how it's different from the West. This is interesting material which is unfortunately undercut by a rather snide, condescending tone. As in the other books, pretty much every farang (white foreigner) is revealed to be a bumbling idiot or soulless jackal. FBI agent Kimberly Jones makes another appearance (although her presence seems completely artificial in terms of how the FBI actually works), acting as a proxy for the reader, so that Sonchai has someone to explain cultural differences to. More engaging is Sochai's deputy, a katoey named Lek, who is getting close to having his sex change operation.
The plot is full of vivid (if somewhat cartoonish) supporting characters and scenes. There's an exclusive sex club, ghosts, sex with ghosts, ex-Khmer Rouge thugs, elephants stomping on people, HiSo (high society) multimillionaires, and a mysterious monk (whose identity is easily guessed by the reader long before Sonchai clues in). Then there is the supernatural element -- present in the previous two books, and even more front-and-center here. The climax features a spirit entering another person's body and taking control of it to do battle with Sochai -- complete with levitation. If you don't mind that, great, but personally, I prefer the more restrained mysticism of Colin Cotterhill's Laotian-set mysteries (see The Coroner's Lunch
Ultimately, despite all the flourishes, the book feels pretty much like the other two in the series. Improbable plots and groan-inducing climaxes juxtaposed with some interesting cultural fodder. I doubt I'll be reading another in the series, but then again, I said that last time...