The Godfather of Kathmandu – John Burdett
Sonchai Jitpleecheep has long considered himself to be the lone honest, incorruptable cop on the Royal Thai Police Force in Bangkok. Despite this, he has an uncomfortably close relationship with his millionaire boss, Colonel Vikorn, the Napoleonic, narcisist kingpin police chief. When Sonchai loans him the dvd set of the Godfather films, Vikorn magnanimously decides that Sonchai should be promoted to “consigliere”, like Tom Hagan, “that light-skinned farang who’s not as hairy as the others”. The promotion comes with a massive salary increase (30x his normal pay) which leaves Sonchai uneasy – and no longer the incorruptable super-cop he imagines himself to be. The tricky part about Vikorn and his side businesses is that they primarilly involve the trafficking of heroin – it is only a matter of time before Sonchai is called up to earn his consigliere salary.
When Vikorn receives a phone call from a mysterious Tibetan lama in Nepal who claims to have a massive amount of heroin he would like to smuggle into Thailand – as well as offering to put Vikorn’s arch-nemesis & biggest competitor, General Zinna, out of business – Sonchai is tasked to be the liaison for the deal. What he doesn’t bargain for is the life-changing experience he has when he meets Norbu Tietsin, the lama who enlightens Sonchai (so to speak) with his vision of “apocalyptic Buddhism”, opening his mind in ways he never thought possible.
There’s something so compelling about Sonchai – I don’t know if it’s this newly duplicitous nature of his, the skill with which he’s able to flip back and forth between being a brilliant detective and being the right-hand man of the biggest drug smuggler in Bangkok or his newfound faith, however misguided it may be. I think what I really enjoy about Burdett’s novels is that I never feel like I’m reading a book just set in Thailand for convenience with some standard detective character as the narrator going through the motions. Sonchai is cynical & hilarious, poking fun constantly at us, the “farang” Western readers. We cannot possibly hope to understand Bangkok, but I wholeheartedly believe that Sonchai Jitpleecheep has lived there all his life, works as a cop in the Royal Thai Police Force, and is part owner in a strip club. (Seriously, his mom & Vikorn own the rest of it.) He is drawn with such skill and believability that I see him more clearly in my minds-eye than most of the other characters of the genre that I’ve read.
Further more, this particular novel carries such more meat to it than your typical “dime store” detective novel that it really is bordering on literary fiction, rather than be crammed in and labeled as “genre fiction”. The relationship that develops between Sonchai, who’s craving stability in his life much more than he is even aware of, and the manipulative, drug-smuggling Nepalese lama is beautifully manuevered into the crime novel that Burdett has crafted. Sonchai has to deal with a brutally murdered American, elaborate precious jem and heroin smuggling rings, and the fragile political morass that is Thailand, to grapple with his own faith – in God, humanity, and himself – in a way that I have never encountered in straight-up crime fiction.