Adventures and danger in the land of smiles


Vulture Peak, by John Burdett. Knopf, 2012, 304 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)
A World of Trouble, by Jake Needham. Marshall Cavendish, 2012, 356 pp., $5.09 (Kindle)

“Vulture Peak” is the latest installment in John Burdett’s ongoing saga of Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Whatever impression readers might have after finishing one of his books, they are likely to agree that nothing in a Burdett novel is mundane. The stories are characterized by international intrigues that lead to macabre murders. His women (and occasionally men who can pass for women) are beautiful and often deadly; the corruption is legendary; the greed is pathological.

Thailand is good naturedly portrayed as a country where the openly corrupt heads of the police and military amass huge fortunes as they deal in drugs, prostitution and other activities. The characters in Burdett’s novels alternate between flamboyantly corrupt individuals flaunting their wealth and power, and, at the other end of the spectrum, bar girls from Isan, Thailand’s impoverished northeast province that borders on Laos and Cambodia. The dramatis personae also feature transsexuals, including Jitplecheep’s own partner at the police station, and of course a motley crew of colorful farangs (foreigners) who have set down roots in Thailand.

Jitpleecheep, a fluent English speaker, is the offspring of a Thai bar hostess (now a successful bar owner) and an American serviceman.

The “vulture” in the title refers to Lilly and Polly Yip, a pair of Chinese identical twin sisters. Brilliant and totally amoral, they have cornered the international market in trading human organs.

A devout Buddhist, Jitpleecheep is the Dante who guides the reader through the various levels of this inferno. As always, he manages to resist temptation and keeps his cool in the face of his boss’s impossible demands and threats from devious rivals.

“A World of Trouble,” Jake Needham’s latest work, begins in Dubai. Jack Shepherd, a Hong-Kong based American attorney works for a single client, General Charerm “Charlie” Kitnarok, the fabulously wealthy former (and now exiled) prime minister of Thailand, who lives in luxurious political refuge at Jalm Jumeirah.

Kitnarok dispatches Shepherd to Bangkok to arrange for the transfer of a huge amount of his wealth to accounts outside the country. “I trust you,” he tells Jake. “You’re smart, you’re tough, you’re connected. And you’re an honest man. That’s why I hired you.”

To spirit Kitnarok’s money out of the country, arrangements are made to circumvent currency controls by paying the tuition fees at an English boarding school for the children of a certain bank official.

In the meantime the streets of Bangkok have become a political battleground between the supporters of two factions, who turn out for large demonstrations clad in red or yellow T-shirts. In a typographical error that works well as an unintentional double entendre, Needham writes: “[Shepherd] saw more and more tension that was tightening on Bangkok like the jaws on a vice [sic].”

Shepherd is approached by a shady character with FBI credentials who solicits his cooperation. As the plot develops incrementally, it’s beginning to look like Kitnarok, through a shell company, is arming his supporters with CIA-supplied weapons in preparation for a return to power.

Not being a trained field agent, the wisecracking Shepherd has few skills to fend off physical threats. Throughout the book he wavers, constantly asking himself if his job is really worth the risks it entails.

Following the assassination of Thailand’s prime minister, Kate, Shepherd’s Thai lady friend who also happens to be director general of the Thai National Intelligence Agency, becomes interim prime minister, and Shepherd finds himself confronted with a serious conflict of interest, with his professional ethics tugging in one direction and his friendship with Kate tugging the other.

Both books are narrated in the first person. Burdett’s and Needham’s protagonists both take a somewhat irreverent view toward the vicissitudes of their situations. Jitpleecheep, the detective-philosopher, is the man struggling to stay sane in a world gone mad. The observations of the American attorney, clearly a graduate of the school of hard knocks, tend toward irony and sarcasm.

While very different in their style of prose and presentation, both novels come to their climaxes in a similarly bloody fashion. Because their antagonists’ badness is beyond redemption, the Thai legal system is unequipped bring such powerful and rich offenders to justice, so having them killed offers the only solution. Some writers — Conan Doyle and the late James Bond creator Ian Fleming come to mind — might consider that a terrible waste of negative talent and bring some memorable villains back in future books. But on the other hand, it’s always satisfying to see the bad guys get their just deserts.

With these two works I was once again reminded that Thailand continues to inspire some of Asia’s finest crime fiction, and am confident we can anticipate more to come.