By Jim Algie
Starting with the first shot, the brilliantly warped Bangkok 8, John Burdett’s series of mysteries starring the Thai-American detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep have traded on flesh: of sex workers and the transgendered, the skin art of a deranged tattooist, the needlepointed epidermises of heroin fiends, and the corpses of those slain in turf wars between Sonchai’s boss, Colonel Vikorn, and his nemesis, Colonel Zinna of the Royal Thai Army.
In Vulture Peak, the fifth novel in the series, the flesh trade is taken to its most gruesome extreme: organ trafficking.
The author’s research on the subject is formidable. In 1950 the first kidney transplant took place in Illinois and the first heart transplant was carried out in 1967. But the biggest development in recent years is the commercial production of cyclosporine, which ensures that the new organ will not be rejected by the recipient’s immune system.
Even with that failsafe in place, hearts and lungs will only last up to six hours. Eyes, when refrigerated, are good for a week.
In light of the payouts, those drawbacks are almost negligible. How much would a former glitter rock star living in Pattaya and in need of another liver be willing to splash out for a new mortgage on life? And how much would a young heartthrob with a wealthy benefactor in the Thai army pay for a face transplant after losing his looks and sense of self-worth in a disfiguring accident?
These kinds of scenarios and medical details are the novel’s backbone. The first strand of the plot unfurls after a triple homicide in the ritziest part of Phuket known as “Vulture Peak”. All three victims have had their internal organs expertly removed.
Sonchai is assigned to the case. Quickly he realizes that it must be linked to Colonel Vikorn’s new campaign to run for the governor of Bangkok. To promote his candidacy he tells the incorruptible and staunchly Buddhist detective, “That your soon-to-be-world-famous crusade to put an end to the nefarious practice of illegal trafficking in body parts, which is so vilely exploiting the poor and the helpless, et cetera, is driven by me.”
Ever since Dashiell Hammett’s hardboiled heyday back in the 1930s, the wisecracking detective has been a fixture of the genre, but Sonchai’s retorts often reveal humour of a blacker hue. “In twenty years as a colonel in the Royal Thai Police, you have never done a single thing to fight crime, while doing a great detail to contribute to it,” he says of his boss.
Carrying a cargo of 1,764 human eyes worth some US$200,000 dollars, Sonchai flies to Dubai to meet the twin Chinese sisters known in the business as “the Vultures.” When a female character in this series does not like sex, a la the poisonous “Mad Moi,” it’s a sure bet she’s headed towards villainess status at a bullet’s speed. Since neither of the Yip sisters enjoy bedroom bodysurfing, but have varnished their prick-tantalizing skills to a porn-image gloss, that means a double shot of “blue balls” for Sonchai, who is already fretting over the possibility that his partner Chanya is having an affair. (In case you’re still a virgin to the series, the author spells out many of the backstories. Chanya, for one, is a former hooker in the Old Man’s Club, a bar owned by Sonchai’s mother on Soi Cowboy.)
Thrillers are slaughterhouses these days. That’s de riguer. This is not a subtle genre. My frequent complaint is that for all the bloodletting many deliver little more than paper cuts to the hearts and psyches of their characters.
This series is a different story. The Yip sisters show the detective some of the emails they have received from prospective clients: desperate, heartrending pleas. One reads, “I’ve been in pain all my life, I couldn’t have done anything to deserve it because I’ve been too sick since childhood to hurt anyone. I am innocent and I’m forty-two years old and I can’t take it anymore. I don’t care what you have to do. I don’t care who has to die. It’s my turn to live a whole day without pain.”
Coldly calculating, the Yip sisters have a whole list of criteria for judging which clients will pay top dollar. They also prey on the ill and the lame who come to Lourdes to pray for a miracle cure from the Virgin Mary.
Caught in a vice-grip between the sisters and the colonel, Sonchai is haunted by visions of eyes popping up in his nightmares. After returning to Bangkok from Dubai and the Monte Carlo, where he escorts the sexy yet sexless sisters on a date to the casino, he moans, “Am I getting softer or are the cases getting harder?”
It’s precisely this vulnerability that makes him more human and likeable than a lot of hardboiled heroes with their bulletproof craniums and cast-iron hearts.
As any follower of the series expects, there will be some scenes set in the fleshpots of Nana Plaza, Soi Cowboy and Patpong. The author’s depiction of Bangkok’s tenderloins for tourists and expats has always been tantamount to a blanket endorsement. Nary a sad old sexpat or burnt-out, meth-afflicted bar hag appears in this series, to throw customers off their carnal kicks.
Whereas some of the earlier books were more concerned with how Bangkok’s carnal kinks revealed Freudian X-rays of the Western male characters’ neuroses, Vulture Peak plays much of the commercial sex for sociological value and satire.
Chanya is writing a thesis about the flesh trade. Her advisor is a “pear-shaped” English prude who sees prostitution in the typically Western feminist terms as a deleterious throwback for the women’s movement. But for Chanya, a native daughter of the Northeast, the sex trade liberated her from demeaning menial labour. In her thesis she conjoins the slave trade in West Africa with organ trafficking. Both are outgrowths of capitalist economics, not dissimilar to how the advertising industry and Hollywood have also commodified the human body. What separates prostitution, she claims, at least when it’s free from the clutches of pimps and organized crime, is that it becomes tarred by a “moral code” when in fact it’s a means of survival and economic betterment for many sex workers.
After visiting the Old Man’s Club, Dorothy, the advisor, has a change of heart and loins about the flesh trade, which adds a few comic interludes to this dark symphony of crime riffs.
From the start, the series has balanced the sacred with the profane, and the mystical with the material, which is really the yin and yang of Thai society. That intertwining has resulted in some startling bursts of poetry, like in Bangkok Tattoo when Sonchai says of his newfound love Chanya, “Not even the Buddha glows like her.”
Occasionally, the detective sermonizes on Buddhist principles but most of the books place the practical over the theoretical. That is still a guiding light in Vulture Peak when a nun uses Buddhist humility and empathy to ward off a hideously deformed, would-be rapist. The detective also delivers an insight into Thai kitsch that I have never heard before. When discussing his own illuminated Buddha image, Sonchai says, “He’s quite gaudy with purple and red lights, which are kitsch enough to remind me it’s only a symbol I’m bowing at.”
Not all the Buddhist details ring true, however. The way that the detective talks about his previous incarnations – an ancient Egyptian in Bangkok 8, an American Indian in this book – sounds more California New Age than Thai Buddhist.
That is a minor quibble. Without spoiling any of the serpentine twists, I’ll go out on a limb to say that this is the most suspenseful climax in the series thus far and packs an emotional wallop too.
Lovers of literate novels fearful of being seen slumming it in the gutters of genre fiction need not get in a flap over Vulture Peak. This is lurid literature with a Buddhist conscience and its libido on overdrive.
(A shorter version of the review was published in The Nation: www.nationmultimedia.com/life/THE-PEAK-OF-THE-FLESH-TRADE-30187655.html)