Bangkok Tattoo
John Burdett
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Bangkok Tattoo

John Burdett
320 pages
July 2006
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Chanya, the most profitable girl at the Old Man's Club, is holed up with an opium pipe, her blood-soaked clothes draped along the stairs to her room. A couple of streets away is the mutilated corpse of a farang (foreigner).

Thai Royal Police Colonel Vikorn dictates Chanya's statement, phrasing it to cover every eventuality. Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep artfully transcribes Vikorn's report; this is how things are done in District 8. But when the mutilated corpse is identified as CIA, the victim creates problems. Obviously, Al Qaeda can be blamed, but how do you justify a terrorist/castration murder?

In Bangkok, pragmatism rules the day. The Colonel is also a gangster, and the police supplement their salaries by working in brothels. Such is Sonchai's case: policeman by day, dedicated papas an by night. Sonchai is following the path of the Buddha but constantly challenged by Vikorn's manner of doing business.

When a Muslim appears at the club, Sonchai is overseeing the girls and tending bar. The disdainful Muslim, Mustafa, unfolds a picture of the dead man and leaves his card. As required, Sonchai follows up. Mustafa's father is an imam who welcomes the detective, explaining that his network has been tracking the CIA agent. The imam is worried about being blamed for the murder, a convenient answer to everyone's problems.

In this fascinating immersion in Thai culture, the novel illustrates Buddhist practices and ancient rituals alongside the very practical approach to the vagaries of human sexuality. This part of the world has a finely tuned morality tempered with tolerance for the many challenges facing people who coexist with their differences. To read Bangkok Tattoo is to experience the exoticism of Eastern values and thought processes. Throughout, advice is narrated to the reader, "Farang, tell your evangelists not to bundle salvation with the work ethic. It really doesn't play in the tropics."

In a complicated slice of drama, an angst-ridden CIA agent falls hopelessly in love, tormented by his duty and religious beliefs versus his amorous obsession; the Americans' pursue their interminable quest to tie every violent act to a subversive plot by Al Qaeda; the naturally pragmatic and corrupt system of the accommodations of the Thai personality is explained; and a group of Muslims attempts to avert war in their part of the country, knowing they are the bogeymen du jour.

A dutiful son and a conscientious policeman, the ubiquitous Sonchai watches all unfold, reporting to Vikorn, yearning for Chanya. Sprinkle in a Japanese tattoo artist, the varied community of katoeys (transsexuals-in-progress), a couple of gruesome murders that include castration and flaying, a dash of karma and mix well. This is the perfect recipe for a spicy Eastern mystery that is uniquely satisfying.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Luan Gaines, 2005

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