Bangkok 8: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (1)

by John Burdett

Paperback, 2004




Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (2004), Edition: Reprint, 317 pages


When the only two cops in Bangkok not on the take arrive at the murder scene of an African American Marine sergeant killed by a methamphetamine-stoked python and a swarm of stoned cobras, one cop is killed. It is up to the remaining cop, Sonchai Jitpleecheep to find the murderer.

Media reviews

Dailly Mirror
Impeccably researched, this is sometimes poetic, often exotic, and totally hardcore
4 more
James Ellroy
Read this book, savour the language - it's the last and most compelling word in thrillers
Mail on Sunday
A fantastic new thriller with an avenging Buddhist cop as its central character
Cracking East meets West thriller introducing a half-Thai, half-American cop whose Buddhist beliefs are as important as his forensic skills. Terrific
Jeffery Deaver
A stunning thriller. Suspense at its best

User reviews

LibraryThing member SamSattler
"Bangkok 8" is the first of John Burdett's Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep novels, a series that with 2010's "The Godfather of Kathmandu," now numbers four titles. Sonchai, the product of a union between an American Vietnam War soldier and a Thai bargirl, brings exceptional talents to his work. He speaks perfect English and has such a good understanding of Western culture that he makes the perfect front man for his department when it comes to dealing with crimes involving Westerners. And a doozy of a case has just been dumped in his lap.

An American Marine sergeant has been killed in a bizarre plot involving a multitude of snakes hopped up on methamphetamine and a huge python that comes close to swallowing the victim's head. When Sonchai's partner, a fellow Buddhist whom he considers to be his true soul mate, is killed during the initial investigation of the crime, Sonchai swears to personally avenge his friend's death. John Burdett's surrealistic version of 21st century Bangkok, though, is not that simple.

Sonchai's investigation leads him deeply inside the city's booming sex trade, a world in which Western men of all ages and means flock to Bangkok by the thousands to purchase the sexual expertise of young Thai women (many of whom, sadly, are mere children). The American FBI, as a matter of course, is involved in the investigation but things begin to get complicated when a famous American millionaire is implicated in the murder along with a mysterious Thai giantess who is much more complicated than she first appears.

"Bangkok 8" presents the city, and Thai culture, in such strange lights that the trust of many readers will be severely tested. But the book's ending is so bizarre (no other description quite fits this ending) that even readers happy to go along for the ride to that point might find themselves shaking their heads in frustration. This is not so much a "who dunnit" as it is a "why they dunnit" and, while there is much of interest in "Bangkok 8," the novel is unlikely to satisfy detective fiction fans who prefer their detectives to work in more realistic settings.

Rated at:3.0
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LibraryThing member xicanti
A Thai detective seeks vengeance after his soul brother dies in the line of duty.

I found this to be a good book but not a spectacular one. The characters were interesting, but I never really engaged with them. Some the character dynamics also felt like they could have been fleshed out a bit more. I got some sense of how these people related to one another, but I never really felt it.

The plot, however, is nice and complex, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing, (or too confused for words; it could go either way). I found that the mystery was set out in such a way that I could see it unfold just as Sonchai did: intuitively rather than factually. It made for a different sort of mystery, and a pretty good one at that.

But what really sets this book apart is the focus on the Thai mindset. The story is steeped in Thai culture. Burdett paints a vivid picture of a society completely unlike anything westerners are used to. The justice system operates under different rules. The morality is complex and often surprising. And, most importantly, the boundaries between the living and the dead are much less rigid. There's a lot of emphasis here on Buddhist ideas, especially those regarding reincarnation. It makes for fascinating reading.

I'd definitely recommend this to mystery fans with a fondness for the speculative.
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LibraryThing member BillPilgrim
This is the fourth of this series that I've read. It is the first of the series. It is just as enjoyable to read as the others have been. It is funny, well written, with an interesting well-constructed plot. It is more than just plot oriented though; there is a lot of character development, philosophical discourse, and commentary on contemporary society.… (more)
LibraryThing member laurustina
The weirdly beautiful thing about this book is that it weaves a decent bit of Thai social commentary into a guilty pleasure kind of detective pulp novel. I picked this up at a thrift store for 99 cents and got more than my money's worth.
LibraryThing member John
Bankok 8 is the first novel featuring Thai police detective Soncahi Jitpleecheep, a devout Buddhist, son of a Thai bargirl and long-gone US GI, and one of only two members of the Thai police force in Bangkok not taking bribes or heavily engaged in illegal activities. The other only incorruptible officer on the force is Sonchai's partner Pichai who dies a particularly gruesome death in the opening pages of the novel. Although Pichai was not the target (that was a black Marine sergeant engaged in something illegal), Sonchai vows to find out who was responsible and kill them. The novel traces his quest through a wild world of police corruption, jade smuggling, the sex trade of Bangkok, involvement with the FBI, and ends up in the bizarre world of sex-changes and plastic surgery. Throughout the book, Burdett is given to asides on the role of the CIA in funding production and distribution of heroin in Laos during the Vietnam war, basic tenets of Buddhism versus the hypocrisy of the West and the propagation of its "values", the nature of the Thai people, the role played by the sex trade. The characters are well-drawn, the atmosphere of Bangkok is excellent, the plot is labyrinthine but plausible and the denouement is as fine an example one would find for the punishment of the ancient flaw of hubris. A good read.… (more)
LibraryThing member wyvernfriend
This story was interesting, not from the locked room aspect (a US marine is killed in a locked mercedes by a group of crazed snakes) but from the point of view of the investigating officer whose soul brother was killed in the same incident. He's one of the few non-corrupt members of the Bangkok police force and he believes strongly in Karma and previous incarnations, in fact he can see sometimes people's previous incarnations.… (more)
LibraryThing member datrappert
This is a book that actually lives up to the reviews on the cover. Burdett drops us into an alternate universe called Bangkok, which we see through the eyes of a police detective, half Thai and half American, the son of a prostitute, who weaves his Buddhist beliefs throughout the first person narrative. It's unlike anything I've read - as atmospheric as the best of Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko novels, but a lot more exotic and even better written. There's also a very ironic sense of humor that runs through the entire story, despite the gruesome goings on. Burdett's take on Thai prostitution will not go down well for a lot of readers, but he does a pretty good job of reconciling the good and bad aspects of Thai society - something I had a hard time doing during the week I spent there a few years ago.

I don't want to speculate on how the author did his research into the various elements that make us this book - I hope it wasn't all done in person - but he does an amazing job of weaving in commentary on Thai culture in a direct but not heavy-handed way. For example, the detective listens to a popular Thai radio call-in show whose discussions are relevant to the bizarre case he is working on. To provide more details would just lessen your enjoyment of the story. Just dive in; don't even read the description on the back cover.
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LibraryThing member justine
intersesting and compelling, made me want to visit Thailand immediately. The author presented a complex vision of a Thai psyche.
LibraryThing member debs4jc
Police detective Sonchai and his partner Pichai are following a black American ex-marine. They catch up to him just after he has been killed by an assortment of drug crazed snakes--one of which also kills Pichai. Thus begins Thai detective Sonchai's first adventure as a virtuous Buddhist cop who must uncover the truth and seek justice. This is complicated by his view of Karma and his visions into past lives, which both explains and complicates the present. Sonchai teams us with a female investigator from the FBI, who along with the reader learns a lot about Thai culture and the seamy side of Bangkok life from Sonchai. Sonchai is a well qualified teacher, as he is the son of a Thai prostitute and an unknown American serviceman, speaks excellent english, and tends to philosophize on the differences between Thai culture and the west. The mystery story is thrilling enough, but the real charm of this story is in experiencing a different culture. If you have any interest in modern day Thailand, be sure to pick this book up.… (more)
LibraryThing member robbintg
Excellent story. The author did throw me off a bit at first by having the main character talk about his past lives and ghosts as if they were "old hat". However, that's one of the cool things about the book too.
LibraryThing member rventura
You would think that a crime novel involving Bangkok's drug and sex trades would be salacious. It is, I guess, but what sticks with me most about this book is the differences between Thai culture and American. The obvious device for this is the teaming up of a Thai police detective and an American FBI agent, which, although pretty obvious, is exactly what you need and are looking for in this sort of thing.
The explanations of Bangkok and buddhism and whorehouses and drug trade is really impressionable. It doesn't exactly paint any of them in a good light necessarily, but it makes you feel like you've visited the secret parts of Bangkok--the parts the tourists don't usually get to see.
Having spent some time in Manila, I began getting strangely nostaligic and wistful for the kind of dirty, odd, very non-American-like values in a large Asian city like that. And then in comes Kimberly Jones, the American FBI agent, who you suddenly want to impress, admire and ask to leave and mind her own business all at the same time.
Having read the Bangkok books somewhat out of order (I read this one AFTER Bangkok Tattoo) I may be somewhat off in saying that I preferred Tattoo and Bagkok Haunts more than this one. But all the same, I liked it. It's dirty, gritty, rough and satisfying. I imagine, a lot like Bangkok. Just like a crime noir ought to be.
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LibraryThing member crazybatcow
Not only is is a crime/detective novel, it's a glimpse into the underbelly of a nation riddled with corruption, prostitution, crime and poverty - all of which is shown to be acceptable by a Buddhist mentality.

It has interesting details of prostitution as a lifestyle, or, more accurately, as THE lifestyle and the underlying crime is solved in a very weird way.

It's actually quite engaging but it's also a lot like a socialist investigation of poverty and prostitution... with perhaps a bit too much of the latter.
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LibraryThing member KromesTomes
Disappointing ... I had pretty high expectations, but the plot is nothing special, the FBI character was completely unbelievable and scene in which the detective's mother is interviewed by CNN was just ridiculous.
LibraryThing member verenka
I finished the book already during my flight to Bangkok. It prepared me for the sleaze, the heat, the traffic, and the corruption of Krung Thep. I liked it, it was different from what I've read so far. My travel companion has been in Thailand many times and his views differ from what I read in the book, so I'm not sure how accurate it was.… (more)
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
Bangkok 8 is the district in which the main character, Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a police detective) where Jitpleechep & his partner are assigned to keep a tail on an American -- but he ends up dead in a Mercedes filled with cobras and a python is eating his head as the detectives arrive. Jitpleechep's partner is killed by two of the cobras; from then on Jitpleechep vows to find the killer and rather than send him to trial, makes a vow to kill him. This is the beginning, and the action does not stop until the end.

The characters are interesting, especially Sonchai, who is no ordinary detective, but rather an arhat; he runs his life through meditating on the Buddha and lives his life based on compassion.He is in contact with his former selves from previous lives and he speaks to ghosts. He became a policeman after having been involved in a murder and then sent to a monastery to learn the ways of Buddhism. The author has offered up a fresh concept here in the way one thinks about detectives.

From the first few pages it is difficult NOT to get hooked...the author brings the reader down into the underbelly of Bangkok and draws the reader into a mystery so convoluted and twisty that it's hard not to keep reading.

Very good book; I highly recommend it for those who like a good mystery and to those who enjoy books set in Thailand.
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LibraryThing member cameling
Fast paced and rich in details. Not only is there a complex mystery to solve, by one Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheap, one of a very very small number of Thai policemen who don't accept bribes, but the book also delves into the subtleties of the Thai culture. There's a great deal of Thai culture that is steeped in mysticism and spiritualism. Buddhist teachings are woven into the story along with insight into the Thai trans-gender underworld.

It's a book that's hard to put down, and holds you enthralled right up to the end.
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LibraryThing member DavidGreene
Palpable immersion in Thai culture. Adding to the sense of immersion is the author's use of first person present tense. Burdett employs a 19th-century technique, occasionally addressing the reader directly with asides and commentary prefaced by the salutation "farang."
LibraryThing member MarthaHuntley
This book, which is one of the steamiest I have ever read and has plenty of violence, is certainly not for everyone, but I thought it was a terrific read. Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a devoutly Buddhist Bangkok cop; his mother; his friend Pichai (alive and dead) and virtually all the other characters are unforgettably written. So -- the book has chutzpah, excellent writing, excellent characters, plenty of local color, great plotting, suspense, cross cultural musings and intelligence, philosophy that makes you ponder, and even a strong spiritual undercurrent. IFor those not put off by the underbelly views, Who could want anything more? Well, I want to read the next two books in the series for sure!… (more)
LibraryThing member sjmccreary
Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his partner are perhaps the only honest policemen in Bangkok. But when they witness the grisly death of an American Marine caused by a car-ful of cobras and one escapes to bite and kill his partner and soul brother, Sonchai vows to discover the responsible person and take revenge. The Americans become involved immediately, and Sonchai is paired with a fiesty blond FBI agent for the investigation. She is intrigued by Bangkok's image as a city where sex is available everywhere. Sonchai is the son of a Thai bar girl and an American GI, and refuses to partake. He is devoted to serving the Buddha and is constantly aware of his karma. He is also able to discern the past identities of those he comes into contact with. As they work together to learn more about the Marine and his associates, using the resources of both Thailand and the US, Sonchai and "the FBI" follow leads into the sex trade, the jade trade, and the drug trade. But which of these, if any, was the victim involved in?

I'm not sure when I first became aware of this book - the first of a series - but I finally made the decision to read it. A great choice. It is fascinating. The whole East vs West theme is central - the results that occur when Eastern mysticism collides with Western capitalism are evident everywhere in the Bangkok of this book. Sonchai is a conflicted character, and there is still much to learn about him. His mother, the retired whore, is fabulous - a delightful character. And his colonel, nothing more than a gangster in uniform, is surprisingly likable. I enjoyed it very much.
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LibraryThing member skylightbooks
This thrilling story opens with the murder of an American Marine in Thailand -- by a 25 foot long massive PYTHON. Investigating the murder is a Thai detective struggling with his own identity of being half Thai, half American trying to maintain his reputation in Thailand as being the only non-corrupted officer of the law. While Bangkok 8 is a mystery it's also so much about Thailand, its people, culture, its notorious sex industry and those who try to exploit it. Gripping and fast paced, this novel moves like a bullet train, yet is ironically funny and infused with Buddhism. I see a blockbuster movie right around the corner. -Courtney… (more)
LibraryThing member awilson
3 stars as a mystery because it's so bizarre, but 4 stars as a description of what it's like to live in Bangkok
LibraryThing member LukeS
In "Bangkok 8," what has John Burdett wrought? We witness Sonchai Jitpleecheep, one of the very few uncorrupted cops in Bangkok, use meditation, charm, and his own subtle use of Bangkok's culture of bribery to untangle the web of drug trafficking, prostitution, art fraud, and murder which has enveloped him. But, into the bargain, Burdett presents us with an insider's look at the drastic culture shock faced by Westerners when they encounter the Thai Buddhist mindset - here Europeans and Americans are the backward, the oafish, the arrogant boors who run roughshod over Thailand's natural resources. There is a deep metaphysical pool into which we are immersed in this book - that's its difference from other mysteries.

The facts of the case are not especially remarkable on the surface. An American Marine who has bungled an attempt to join an international criminal syndicate is murdered in exotic style. All our detective's instincts and all the evidence point to a powerful, well-connected jade and jewelry dealer whom Sonchai feels he must kill to avenge the death of his partner. However, enter Fatima, the extremely sensual, beautiful result of a modern-day Pygmalion project - gone horribly wrong - and the heavy's demise is taken off our hero's hands. Or is it?

Something else that distinguishes this intriguing piece from other mystery stories is the bifurcation of our detective's personality: Fatima is really Sonchnai's alter ego, his living, breathing dark side, who takes it upon herself to deliver a brutal justice in her own way. All along, we have the ethereal, not-quite-concrete meditations on Buddha, karma, and the irreconcilable conflict between Western and Eastern morality. Along the way we have the detective's delightful entrepreneur mother, the crooked police commander Sonchai nonetheless loves, and communication with the detective's dead partner, whom he describes as his soul brother. And the master-stroke which turns the tables karmically correct is orchestrated by a holy and far-off Buddhist monk.

Read "Bangkok 8," and be transported by remarkable language and gritty similitude to another country, another morality, another state of mind. Recommended unreservedly.
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LibraryThing member queencersei
Captures the 'feel' of Bangkok. You can practically see the neon, smell the food and feel the pollution of that city. Meant in the best way possible. Fast paced mystery.
LibraryThing member apatt
Couldn't finish this because the author's portrayal of Thai people, language and culture seems off to me. I would be interested to hear from another Thai speaking person who have read this book.
LibraryThing member snat
Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is the son of a Bangkok prostitute (insert your own inappropriate joke regarding the juxtaposition of the words "Bangkok" and "prostitute" here) and a Vietnam soldier. As a result, Sonchai is able to walk in both cultures, but belong to neither, and to understand the differences between the farang (a term used for foreigners) and the Thai mindset. He's also a devout Buddhist, which prevents him from taking part in the openly corrupt practices of the Thai police force. He knows far more about his mother's sex life than anyone should (probably "your mom" jokes have no affect on him since his mom has probably done everyone he knows) and is fixated on Western high fashion (to the point he can see a woman's shirt and tell you from which collection and season it's from). Clearly, he's a complex guy. And now, after the death of his partner, he's seeking karmic revenge against the person responsible for the murder. If he gets high on yaa-baa (meth) along the way and pole dances in a strip club, then so be it. Karma's a bitch, but even it must yield when Tina Turner's Simply the Best comes on the jukebox and demands a pole grind.

The murder mystery genre is not one that I usually enjoy, but I couldn't resist the setting--Thailand. Unfortunately, the setting was not enough to really hook me and consisted of what I (in stereotypical fashion, which apparently exists for a reason) imagined a white author writing about the underbelly of the "exotic Orient" would focus on: the sex trade. And it's not that I'm a prude about such things. Instead, it was just that this book contained so much of what I expected that I was, well, kind of bored by it. Everything meant to shock failed: interrogating an erotic performance artist while she shoots darts out of her va-jay-jay, a murder committed by locking the victim in a car full of cobras (cobras who have been hopped up on meth, by the way), the details of a sex change operation, a sadomasochist who comes to Thailand to indulge his darker fantasies, a sex starved blonde FBI agent who just can't keep her hands of Sonchai. Yawn. All of this is fairly predictable and the mystery itself has such a ridiculously laughable denouement that I couldn't feel satisfied with the ending.

However, despite its faults, I can't honestly say that I didn't like it. The chapters were short and there were some interesting glimpses into Buddhist thinking (however, I do question how accurate they are) and the Thai response to sex and prostitution as a means of empowering women. I'm sure there are better fictional sources for learning about contemporary Thai culture and, for that reason, I won't be continuing with the other books in the series.
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