When I read John Burdett’s first novel, Bangkok 8, I was hooked, and I couldn’t wait to learn more about its fascinating protagonist, the incorruptible Thai homicide detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Bangkok 8 offered up a feast of intimate knowledge about Buddhism as practiced in Thailand, the local brand of animist superstitions, and the corruption that pervades every nook and cranny of Thai society, all revealed in the context of a spectacular murder mystery.
In three subsequent novels featuring the detective — Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts, and The Godfather of Katmandu — Burdett gradually shifted the emphasis of his writing from Sonchai Jitpleecheep’s exotic inner dialogue to the grisly details of the homicide case at hand. In Vulture Peak, the fifth novel in the Royal Thai Detective Series, Burdett has gone the distance. The local color of Thailand’s red-light districts is still there, and the plot is, if anything, even more convoluted, but the detective has grown tired and his worldview is verging on cynicism. The result is less than fully satisfying.
Vulture Peak (Sonchai Jitpleecheep #5) by John Burdett (2012 ) 306 pages @@@ (3 out of 5)
Vulture Peak — the place, not the title — is the palatial hilltop home outside Phuket on the Thai coast where three bodies have been discovered, so badly mutilated that their gender can’t be determined at first. Heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, genitals, face have all been surgically removed, the bodies left on an oversized bed in the deserted home. Detective Jitpleecheep is ordered by his boss, the famously corrupt policeman, Colonel Vikorn, to learn the identity of the murderer. If the detective solves the case, the colonel can take credit and boost his campaign for Governor of Bangkok — a campaign no one would ever have expected him to undertake. Here is the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma, and Jitpleecheep must use all his wile and intuition to unravel the threads of the case.
As the detective sets out with his katoey (transgender) assistant, mystery piles on mystery. Why is Colonel Vikorn running for public office when he is already making billions from the drug trade? Who owns the house on Vulture Peak, and what is it used for? Is the colonel’s bitter rival, General Zinna, involved in organ trafficking? Does he own the house? As new characters crowd onto the scene, the plot grows ever more intricate. To understand what’s going on, you’ll have to read almost to the very end of the book.
Don’t get the impression from anything I’ve written above that Vulture Peak doesn’t erupt in startling prose from time to time. Here, for example, Burdett comments on Christianity (with apologies to you, Dear Reader, if you’re a believer): “Of the world’s three universal religions, one is based on a profound insight into human psychology and one is based on a profound insight into the kind of social structure that is necessary for people to live in peace and harmony . . . The former is Buddhism, and the latter is Islam. The other world religion is an insane collection of primitive magic and mumbo-jumbo, with cadavers resurrecting and walking around with holes in them, lepers suddenly healing and the blind suddenly seeing, virgins giving birth and snakes that talk.”
And again, commenting on Western civilization: “The discovery of nirvana is the psychological equivalent of the invention of zero but vastly more important. Think of where mathematics was before zero, and you have the level of mental development of the West: good/bad, right/left, profit/loss, heaven/hell, us/them, me/you. It’s like counting with Roman numerals.”
John Burdett was born in the UK, became a lawyer there, spent a dozen years practicing in Hong Kong, then left the law to write crime novels. He now divides his time between Thailand and France.
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