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Mysteries along the Mekong

by Mark Schreiber

BANGKOK 8, by John Burdett. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, 318 pp., $24.00 (cloth).
WAITING FOR THE LADY, by Christopher G. Moore. Bangkok: Heaven Lake Press, 2003, 342 pp., $24.95 (cloth).

Can a Western author convincingly put himself inside the mind of a Thai cop? Writing in the first person in “Bangkok 8,” British author John Burdett “becomes” detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Thai cop and born-again Buddhist who speaks English with a German accent.

Sonchai grew up on the streets, his mother one of tens of thousands of girls from the impoverished countryside who swarmed into Bangkok during the Vietnam war to entertain American soldiers on short leave from the battlefront. One soldier, in fact, even fathered Sonchai. But his mother proved a sly businesswoman and over the years shacked up with a succession of farang (foreigner) men — from whom Sonchai picked up his strange but serviceable English.

Sonchai works out of a “Third World police station, which is to say a two-story reinforced concrete structure festooned with our flag and busts of our deeply beloved King.”

As Burdett writes, “You have to remember we’re Buddhist. Compassion is an obligation, even if corruption is inevitable. . . . My junior colleagues who man the desks have developed a posture of stern kindliness, a willingness to help tempered by long exposure of the poor, for District 8 is the very essence of Krung Thep (Bangkok), its heart and its armpit.”

While the book begins with the grotesque murder of a U.S. marine attached to the U.S. Embassy — an incident in which Sonchai’s partner is also killed — the story is at its best during encounters with the Thais’ laid-back attitude toward their country’s ubiquitous corruption. Among the book’s dramatis personae, this corruption is practically held up as a virtue. Wealthy police commanders who own and operate their own businesses manage to keep crime under control, and enough of the wealth trickles down to sustain the little people. What’s wrong with that?

The murdered marine leads to the book’s femme fatale, a mysterious dark-skinned Thai woman who may be the missing link to a wealthy American jade dealer with high-level political connections and a secret whose protection is worth killing for.

Mixed messages from Myanmar

Turns out that Bangkok, as Christopher G. Moore can also attest in “Waiting for the Lady,” is unmatched as an exotic locale for mysteries.

American Sloan Walcott inadvertently finds a camera that had fallen through a crack between check-in counters at the crumbling airport in Rangoon (Yangon). Back home in Bangkok he develops the film to find photos of Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Walcott discovers that the camera’s owner was a Japanese photographer who was later killed in a traffic accident back in Japan. The man’s wealthy father appears in Thailand and offers to pay Walcott a large sum to return to Myanmar and present Suu Kyi, given qualified release from house arrest, with the photos.

Walcott is also determined to track down an enigmatic young woman with a blue scorpion tattoo on her thigh, whose picture also appears on the abandoned camera’s film. Partly curious, partly captivated, Walcott enlists Hart, a happy-go-lucky young Brit, and Sarah, a young Canadian scholar specializing in tattoos, in his search to discover her identity.

At his worst, Walcott epitomizes the “Ugly American,” a totally obnoxious character. Buying an entire tray of greasy pastries for a dollar from a poor Indian peddler he sneers: “Those samosas are health hazard pieces of s**t, and I am not buying them to eat. I am buying them as ammo.” He then points out a distant target and offers Hart $5 if he can strike it with a slingshot. Hart complies.

Tracing the woman’s tattoo shifts the narrative back to when “comfort women” bearing similar tattoos serviced the Japanese military during its wartime occupation of what was then called Burma. The subject of Asian women exploited as sex objects by outsiders comes rushing back to the present when Walcott decides to work off his frustrations by demanding that a young hooker be brought to his hotel. The brassy Sarah reprimands him in this remarkable soliloquy:

“She has dreams. They may not . . . mean anything to you. And you might laugh at them because they are small and simple. But for her those dreams are her hopes . . . and when someone like you comes along with money, wanting a f**k, she goes dead to herself, and you help kill off a part of herself, who she is, and what she dreams. Until one day, she is old and used up and only faintly remembers whatever dreams she had. All she remembers is being used for the dreams of others.”

With its unexpected leaps from one era to the next, “Waiting for the Lady” has an oddly disjointed quality, rising from the squalid and occasionally soaring to literary heights. Perhaps Moore intended it this way to underscore the often antithetical mix of emotions that many Westerners confront in Southeast Asia.

The powerful sentiments stirred in these two works affirm that Asia still boasts places where people’s emotions are not swaddled in cotton. In the end, it moved me to ponder why contemporary English fiction set in Japan always seems so strained, so lacking in laughter and tears.