The Internal Adventures Of Urban Man As Murder Squad Detective: An Interview With John Burdett, Author Of The Bangkok Asset

John Burdett is a British author whose vastly entertaining series of novels feature Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a half-Thai, half-American detective who bears the notable distinction of being the only honest cop in Bangkok. Featuring sardonic insight into both Thai and Western culture aplenty and plots which refuse to play by detective story rules, Burdett maneuvers us behind the eyes of Detective Jitpleecheep through Thailand’s City of Angels in all its durian-scented, haze-choked wonder.

The Jitpleecheep books are your antidote to the dumb Bangkok of Hangover II, the idealistic haze of backpacker legend, and the Orientalist exoticizing of a thousand forgettable pulps.

The latest Jitpleecheep book, The Bangkok Asset, was released this week by Knopf.

Court Merrigan: How accurate do you think your portrayal of the Thai milieu is? Is verisimilitude part of your aim? The language Jitpleecheep uses — I’m thinking of the numerous asides to “you, farang” — lend a certain authority to his view of Thai culture, cuisine, religion, etc. And then Jitpleecheep is himself half-farang. Would a Westerner debarking in Bangkok discover anything like Jitpleecheep’s world?

John Burdett: On the one hand I’ve been much encouraged by Westerners debarking in Bangkok and congratulating me on the accuracy of my descriptions. On the other hand, as a resident of the city with a Thai partner I am constantly reminded that my learning curve has not stopped climbing. Also, of course, Thai society is changing all the time. We tend to think of Western societies in a constant state of change, which is true to some extent but often exaggerated. On the other hand, the emergence from a Southeast Asian Buddhist Kingdom of the old kind into a modern state is dramatic and occasionally awesome. Then again there is the personality of Sonchai himself. He has one foot in both cultures and tends to describe one from the point of view of the other. This is deliberate. When asked I tend to describe him as Urban Man: he knows a great deal about the world from the Internet, is very smart, but has no political power himself and is at the mercy of forces — often criminal — beyond his control.

CM: So would you say you write “about” Thailand, the way Flannery O’Connor wrote “about” the American South, Ed Abbey the American West, Dickens London? Have many Thais read your work, and commented on your accuracy, as have Westerners?

I believe what I have done is adapt a stream of consciousness technique so that the city, the country and the man in the middle are all part of the same thing.

JB: I would not say I write ‘about’ Thailand — or anywhere else. To write ‘about’ somewhere is to use the very familiar subject/object approach. I believe what I have done is adapt a stream of consciousness technique so that the city, the country and the man in the middle are all part of the same thing. This is the inestimable advantage of first person narrative. Bangkok, in this context, is whatever is inside Sonchai’s head as he moves around. A literary type will immediately recognise a debt to James Joyce, which no doubt is true, but for myself I see this technique as a natural evolution from my interest in Buddhism, which, long before Joyce, pointed out that subject and object are an illusion created for the necessity of communication and survival. It is interesting, by the way, that this idea was first broached in the West by Ludwig Wittgenstein, a contemporary of Joyce, who was much influenced by Schopenhauer who was the first to bring Buddhist philosophy to the attention of the West.

Those Thais who read my books are of necessity fluent in English and therefore constitute a special class. They tend to fall into two categories: Thai women with long-term western partners, and Thai men who have been educated abroad. The first category tend to find my portrayals of Thai woman/Western man hilarious. The second are delighted by the extreme personalities of characters like Vikorn, whom they seem to recognise.

CM: Do you think Jitpleecheep’s ability to see into the past lives of others is a superpower? I mean, it makes sense in a Thai context where many are presumed to have the ability, but to the Western reader such a power seems quite otherworldly. If it’s not a superpower … what is it?

JB: In Buddhism there are no superpowers, there is simply an underlying reality to which we are largely blind. Because of his intensity and honesty Sonchai is able to lift the veil a little from time to time. He is certainly not fully enlightened but belongs to that category the Buddha called ‘enlightening beings.’ That is to say he is in the grip of an internal dynamic which reveals unexpected truths from time to time — at a cost, for he has still to survive in a humdrum and corrupt world ruled by the likes of Vikorn.

CM: I could pick out any one of dozens of Jitpleecheep’s asides, some of which have made me guffaw right into my coffee or bourbon (depending on the time of day), but this one has always stood out to me, from the first Jitpleecheep book, Bangkok 8:

There will be a massive shift of power from West to East in the middle of the twenty-first century, caused not by war or economics but by a subtle alteration in consciousness. The new age of biotechnology will require a highly developed intuition which operates outside of logic, anyway the internal destruction of Western society will have reached such a pass that most of your resources will be concentrated on managing loonies. There will TV news pictures of people fleeing from supermarkets and pressing their hands to their heads, unable to take the banality anymore. The peoples of Southeast Asia, who have never been poisoned by logical thought, will find themselves in the driver’s seat. It will be like old times, if your time line stretches back a few thousand years.

Anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a Whole Foods understands, I think! How literally are we take this aside? Clearly Jitpleecheep believes it, but should your reader?

In some ancient Buddhist traditions the fate of the small-minded was rebirth as insects.

JB: This is an amusing outburst by Urban Man as described above. Sonchai’s great resource is his humour and I think he keeps his tongue in his cheek during this harangue. But that does not mean he is not right in his analysis. With respect, I think you may have answered your own question here: Anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a Whole Foods understands. What will be the fate of a society committed to petty detail in the absence of any uplifting quest of the kind that drove our ancestors? What happens longer term when the great alluring horizons of yesterday have all shrunk to a shelf in a Wal-Mart? Surely nobody knows as yet. Like Sonchai, I would suggest the augurs are not good. In some ancient Buddhist traditions the fate of the small-minded was rebirth as insects. Or, one might support Sonchai’s reasoning by reference to history. Prior to modern times the best example of an empire governed exclusively by written law was the Roman. It was eventually superceded by the extremely fanciful, intuitive and organic medieval period best represented by St Francis of Assisi, who talked to birds and befriended wolves — and the troubadours of Aquitane.

CM: Thailand has certainly undergone massive changes since the Vietnam War; even since I first stepped foot in the Land of Smiles in 1998, the pace of change beggars belief. And yet, a core of “Thai-ness” seems to remain, from the ever-present scent of incense to the durian hawkers to the utter disregard for road safety. Is this because people who recall the old days just haven’t died out yet?

You still find Thai essence driving under the surface, even at the most sophisticated levels of society.

JB: Like any ancient society, including European ones, there is an essence at the center of the national character. A lot of the issues currently straining the European experiment can be understood as a conflict between national identity and the pressures of internationalism. Most Thais are not natives of Bangkok, even though they may work there, and come from a countryside where there has as yet been only minimal alterations in consciousness (despite that with social media and the Internet the pressure to change is high and despite the disruptions referred to in my first answer). You still find Thai essence driving under the surface, even at the most sophisticated levels of society. Also, Thais set great store by a feeling of well being (sabai) as opposed to the theoretical Western notion that: If I have a high enough standard of living I must be happy — right? Thais, still steeped in Buddhism, are likely to answer: Not necessarily, farang. My hope is that they will follow the Italian model by taking what they need from the new on an a la carte basis and keep the best of their traditions, especially the ones that make them feel good in the existential sense of the phrase, i.e. sabai.

CM: One of the best features of the Jitpleecheep books is the way concrete descriptions of Bangkok and environs stand side-by-side with Sonchai’s mystical experiences, such as his “superpower.” Seems to mirror the experience of being in Thailand to me. It also lifts your books out of strictly realist territory. How do you classify your Jitpleecheep books? Thrillers? Mysteries? Something else entirely? Or would you prefer to sidestep such classification?

JB: I don’t much like classifications simply because it seems to mislead people. From time to time a critic will complain that my plots do not follow the strict police procedural blueprint — there was one in the Washington Post years ago who seemed quite dogmatic about it and could not forgive my transgression. I need hardly say that to me this is incomprehensible nonsense and arises from the need to classify. If I had to put a label on the Sonchai series I would have to say something like “The Internal Adventures of Urban Man as Murder Squad Detective” — far too clumsy for a label I suppose but a tad more accurate that ‘police procedural’.

CM: I’ve often heard it said that books set in locales outside the United States stand little chance of gaining traction, yet each of the Jitpleecheep books have sold very well. To what do you attribute Jitpleecheep’s success?

JB: I have to return to my Urban Man theme. Sonchai reads the same news, follows the same stories, is interested in the same issues as so many other educated people today, all over the world. A struggling young person living alone or with a partner in a walkup in Brooklyn will have more in common with his counterparts in Bangkok or Buenos Aires than he does with a farmer in Arkansas or a millionaire in California. He also suffers from the same sense of ‘information without power’. I have received emails form readers in Latin America who say: Replace the Buddhism with Catholicism and you have my own home town, pollution and police corruption, overcrowding and heat included. I also believe there is a universalism in Buddhism that makes its central perceptions true and recognisable for everyone who takes the trouble to think about being alive.

CM: One of the critiques leveled at books featuring a recurring character is that the readers know that character will survive as long as the series does. What’s your method of building suspense and forward momentum in spite of this?

Maybe I transmit this schizoid tension.

JB: I think the critique is wrong. Readers demand that the central character live on to endure another trauma. Sherlock Holmes is a good example. Of course, he died in the end, but that was not the best episode. I think the whole point of this kind of series is the question in the Reader’s mind from the start of the book: How is he going to get out of this new jam? My technique is to make each jam very different, and probably more threatening. To be honest, as author I never know how I will extricate myself from the narrative headache I tend to give myself from the first chapter. I watch in disbelief as the subconscious comes up with the most amazing answers that, so to speak, I would never have thought of myself. Maybe I transmit this schizoid tension.

CM: At one point the movie rights for Bangkok 8 and other Jitpleecheep books were sold, but a world that could sorely use more Sonchai remains without a film version. Does the recent success of the radically unconventional MAD MAX movie give you any hope that Bangkok 8, very unconventional itself, will get made? Surely there’s room for more movies set in Bangkok besides the slapstick of HANGOVER II or the austere auteur’s vision of the city of ONLY GOD FORGIVES?

JB: The world of movies is a greater mystery to me than anything that happens to Sonchai. The options have been sold continuously for over ten years, presumably to people who intend to make a movie, but so far no one has managed it. I prefer to answer the question by confessing I keep my fingers crossed.

CM: How many more Jitpleecheep books can we look forward to?

JB: That would be telling.