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Bangkok Bomb

Too many lectures sink sequel


Successful sequels in literary detective fiction usually rely on an all-too-human sleuth readers can empathize with, as the protagonist battles the bad guys and his own demons. But when a chief character has a condescending attitude toward the very audience the reader is likely a part of, the author jeopardizes the whole franchise. That's the case with John Burdett's new novel, Bangkok Tattoo, which again features the half-caste Thai detective Sonjai Jitpleecheep.

In his widely lauded predecessor, Bangkok 8, Burdett, who is British and lives in Hong Kong, used Jitpleecheep to deftly expose the limitations of Western rational thought, while also disabusing readers of many misconceptions about the East. But in Bangkok Tattoo, Jitpleecheep has become a hectoring guide, aiming his condescension primarily at Americans in pace-killing lectures about our sexual repression, materialistic obsessions and lack of spirituality. "Jarang," the Thai term for foreigner, was used sparingly by Jitleecheep in the first novel; here, it appears incessantly, carrying an unmistakable pejorative tone: "I believe it is intrinsic to your cockeyed morality, jarang, that when a man and woman engaged in law enforcement are forced to pretend, for strategic reasons (say, a decoy stakeout situation), to be lovers, they must be scrupulous in preventing their false embraces from developing into full-blown copulation — correct? Well, fuck that..."

The plot in Tattoo, like its predecessor, is an implausible but entertaining murder mystery, only this time the novel follows a resourceful and beautiful Thai working girl to America, where she becomes the lover of a CIA operative who eventually turns up dead in a Bangkok hotel room, sans both his penis and a full backplate tattoo. The clumsy, ham-fisted Americans who come to help solve the murder want to blame Muslim insurgents in the south of the country, which is the linchpin upon which the plot turns. American holier-than-thou types could do with the occasional lecture to remind them of the folly of most human endeavor, but they are unlikely to be among Burdett's audience, so he's preaching to the converted. And given the subtlety of his first novel with Jitpleecheep, Burdett seems to have taken the easy route and resorted to polemics in Tattoo, rather than making his case through a taut narrative.

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