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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
For me, John Burdett's Bangkok novels are a guilty pleasure comparable to being a chocoholic. Amazon reviewers of Vulture Peak seem to me to be very judicious in their assessments of the weaknesses and off-putting, over-the-top, bizarre, lubricious and ghoulish elements of the plot and style. But... Just one more caramel-loaded candy and I promise to stop.

So, while admitting the flaws, I review why you may want to try out Burdett if you are unfamiliar with his sagas. They are narrated by Sonchai, a young Buddhist cop in Bangkok with a mix of attitude, fatalism and cynicism as he navigates through a swamp of vice and sado-anything violence. He is the son of a good natured and respectable prostitute now turned bar/brothel owner and sort of married to an ex-prostitute who is finishing off her Phd thesis. His transgender deputy is awaiting the operation and his boss is a police chief who runs most of the drug trade and protection rackets in a rivalry with a General who has his own clandestine operations -- and troops.

In Vulture Peak, the emerging racket is kidnapping for body part transfers. The shady figures behind the business and the murders by disembowelment plus face removal that X is assigned to solve include twin sisters, ladies of a decidedly psychotic nature that would attract the admiration of Hannibal Lechter. There's a Shanghai cop who is bipolar to the nth degree of manic and a cagey Hong Kong cop plus Dorothy and Om and Manu, none of whom would be described as normal.

What makes the books work for me is that they never fall into campiness, caricature or cartoon exaggeration. They have a sense of realism, no matter how unreal the situation. Burdett writes with irony and elegance, downplaying the violence in a sort of Buddhist fatalism; everything is calm and lucidly laid out. I personally dislike horror novels and films but somehow the gruesome nature of the story is laconically kept at a distance. It is all definitely weird but in a surprisingly reasonable way/

In his personal interviews and the stories themselves, Burdett makes clear his respect and sympathy for the many prostitutes, bar girls and madams who swirl through the scene. They have made a sensible choice about how to make a living, don't view sex as sin but a routine, and in many instances are primarily committed to helping out their families. In the same way, the transgenders - often cops - are ordinary in their aspirations and just going along with the flow. The bad people are bad mainly because of greed but the "deviants" are ordinary and going with the flows of Bangkok life, some of them good, some bad and varying in their eccentricities. Burdett is quite skilled in getting you to take them as they are and he draws you into their frame of reference. He can be funny and perceptively sharp, especially in knocking the Westerners who are obsessed with sex and sin, in a rush, looking for meaning and purpose, and judgmental.

It's all fun and shrewd. The plotting gets convincingly convoluted. The style is workmanlike with frequent neat observations. It's candy for the mind, but well above average in quality of story, characterization and pacing. It's out of the ordinary in every way and captures and keeps the reader's attention (well, mine, anyway). I recommend it as well worth trying - you may find it surprisingly tasty.
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon January 3, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This series has a surreal setting and an intriguing detective. Sonchai Jitpleechee is honest and pure of heart, a Thai Buddhist on the Path. At the same time, he smokes dope when reality gets overwhelming, and he loves (but does not hire) prostitutes (his mother was one). His wife is an ex-prostitute turned academic. And his boss is thoroughly corrupt, a master criminal who makes use of Sonchai's drive to fight crime.

I read some earlier Sonchai mysteries, but drifted away from them recently. The author's graphic scenes and bitter ironies are not for the faint of heart, of which I may be one.

Vulture Peak is full of body parts. While the beautiful women and boys of Thailand are selling their bodies to tourists in every bar, a fabulous mansion on a hill overlooking Phuket becomes the scene of a gruesome triple-homicide involving missing body parts. Sonchai's boss, Colonel Vikam, puts him on the case - which quickly expands to an all-out campaign against international organ trafficking.

I liked the author's flashes of sympathy for the outré behavior of transvestites and their psychological struggles surrounding "the operation."

I liked the scenes involved cynical American consultants crafting a political campaign for Colonel Vikam, who is suddenly and inexplicably running for mayor of Bangkok.

And I have to admit John Burdett has a gift for creating bizarre characters: the sadistic twin female organ traders, the crazed ex-soldier with a missing face, the bipolar cop bent on martyrdom...

Burdett has invented his own unique mix of warped humor, brutal satire, manic plotting and unorthodox social and spiritual lessons. The roller coaster ride left me queasy. But hardcore fans of detective Sonchai know the drill, and should enjoy Vulture Peak.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I have read John Burdett's series set in Thailand and featuring a very different policeman, Sonchai Jitplecheep. He is half Thai, half GI. His mother is a former prostitute and bar owner, and he is supervised by a very corrupt Colonel, Vikorn. The last novel dealt with large scale drug traffic, and expanded the settings to Tibet and China. In addition to Timothy Halloran, I would recommend the similar books by Christopher Moore. Burdett strains the reader's credulity, with identical twin sociopathic but beautiful Chinese women who enjoy unusual uses for body parts and high stakes gambling. But, unlike some reviewers,I enjoyed the occasional digressions into a rather elevated discussion of the significance of prostitution in an economy which is funded by farang (foreign) middle aged men who engage in various sexual practices not approved in their home land. Sonchai is a devout Buddhist who struggles with his demons, but is a persistent and sympathetic observer. If you like mysteries with an exotic setting, this may be your cup of tea. It is not necessary to have read the prior books in the series but the last one, Godfather of Katmandu, gives a different slant on Tibet.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon December 30, 2011
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
International crime thrillers involving corruption at high levels are a staple of the fiction shelves.Many of them offer suspenseful plots and good entertainment, but how many leave you with a smile on your face and a good feeling about people? Vulture Peak was a pleasure on several counts.
A triple murder occurs in an opulent seaside mansion overlooking the Andaman Sea, the victims found cleanly shot in the head but minus all their transplantable body parts. It doesn't take much thinking for Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep to conclude that these murders are connected to his new assignment to close down an international operation trafficking in human organs, many of which appear not to have been provided voluntarily. Thus opens Vulture Peak. Before it closes, Sonchai, accompanied by beautiful but evil Chinese twins and armed with a black American Express card that opens doors to luxuries not normally part of a police detective's lifestyle, ventures as far as Dubai and Monte Carlo to get to the source of the criminal activity. Complicating matters is the fact that Sonchai's boss, Police Colonel Vikorn, who assigned him to the case, is a drug dealer himself. Vikorn is embarking on a political campaign to be elected governor of Bangkok. General Zinna of the Royal Thai Army, his longtime rival in organized crime, is apparently involved in the organ-trafficking, and, in addition to the blow to an enemy, it would certainly enhance Vikorn's political reputation to be perceived as the spearhead of an effort to rid Thailand of this heinous activity. Burdett delivers a tangled and satisfactory plot full of twists and betrayals that keep the reader guessing where it all is going to lead.
The first clue that Vulture Peak is more complex than the plot summary above might suggest comes right on the first page when narrator-protagonist Sonchai comments, "It's as good a place as any for a triple homicide." Sonchai immediately comes across as engaging , someone it would be nice to know better. Although he has learned to cope in a thoroughly corrupt, almost depraved society, Sonchai remains a decent person and a committed Buddhist whose outlook, lends a positive feel to what could have been a very downbeat book if written by a different author. His dry wit gave me a number of chuckles and several laugh-out-loud moments.
Author John Burdett has lived in Thailand and Hong Kong and knows present-day Asian society. In addition to the description of Thai society itself, there are many comments on western civilization past and present from an Asian perspective that are not what one normally encounters in a crime novel, such as the many references to "capitalist society" and an interesting historical sidebar on the British role in drug trafficking in Asia.
Even more interesting is the way Buddhist philosophy permeates the book through the observations of the narrator. Few western readers would pause if a Christian-influenced character made an observation such as "the poor we shall always have with us", and Vulture Peak has equivalent Buddhist observations such as "the Buddha taught that the distinction between subject and object, the self and other, even between you and me, is illusory". These non-western philosophical insights were colorful and thought-provoking and enjoyable to me on an intellectual level. They also provide the motivation for Sonchai's interactions with the outside world, affecting both his conduct on the job and his personal interactions, such as his response to the possibility that his wife may has been unfaithful to him.
Despite the many enjoyable features of the book, there were a few drawbacks. The degree of societal corruption described is thoroughly unpleasant, and commercial activities seem TOTALLY wrapped up in alcohol, drugs, and sex. Even the decent folks, such as Sonchai's wife Chanya, an ex-prostitute who is writing her PhD dissertation on sex trafficking, are focused on vice. It may be a fairly realistic picture, given a bit of literary license, but I am not sure I really want to know about it; it was distasteful. And even if the overall portrayal is valid, the incidence of transsexuals lacks credibility, and I wonder why the author emphasizes it so much.
Vulture Peak was my first introduction to Sonchai. I did not feel I needed to the background of the other book in the series to enjoy this one, and I will look forward to reading the others and getting to know Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep even better.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on January 24, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
As Vulture Peak begins, Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a former Buddhist monk, still works for Police Colonel Vikorn. Unfortunately for Sonchai, the manipulating colonel is no easier to work for now than in the past. As is often the case with Vikorn, there is more to him than meets the eye and, when he assigns Sonchai to investigate a racket that seems to be centered in Thailand, the motive is more about getting himself elected to political office than it is about shutting down the profiteers. If, in the process, Vikorn also can bring down the equally corrupt General Zinna, his longtime personal rival, it will have been a very successful investigation, indeed.

John Burdett's books, despite their tendency to be over the top at times, are always long on atmosphere and memorable characters. Vulture Peak is no exception. Before it is over, Sonchai's investigation will take him away from the city and into the streets of Hong Kong, Dubai, Monte Carlo, and Shanghai. As the investigation moves forward, he must deal with an extraordinary cast of good guys, cops, suspects, and assorted villains of multiple nationalities. The lineup includes two sisters I defy any reader to forget quickly, Chinese identical twins with a history of weirdness that goes back to their childhood and makes them the perfect criminals.

Vulture Peak is Thai noir at its finest and will likely entice readers to read the entire series from the beginning in order to find out how the relationship between Sonchai Jitpleecheep and Police Colonel Vikorn has evolved over time.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
John Burdett is an Englishman who divides his time between Thailand and France. He was a Kong Kong based lawyer who moved to Thailand and started writing a mysteries. His hero, Sonchai Jipleecheep, is the mixed race son of a Thai prostitute and and American Vietnam Vet he has never actually met. Sonchai is a strict Buddhist and the last honest cop in Bangkok.

A good mystery requires plenty of atmosphere and the Southeast Asian setting provides a colorful and spicy setting for Burdett's series of novels. Bangkok provides a backdrop of rich vitality through which Sonchai manages to navigate. If you are squeamish about sexual roles or gender bending transformations then Burdett may not be your cup of Darjeeling. I find, however, that Burdett's crime fiction rises far above the ordinary in its ability to provoke, to challenge and, at times, to even enlighten a bit, our jaded farang (Western) sensibilities. Burdett has produced seven novels including Bangkok 8: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (1) and The Godfather of Kathmandu: A Royal Thai Detective Novel (4) (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard) that describe the vitality and seediness of the red light district, tattoo parlors, sex change operations, drug abuse and violent crime across asia. Thailand, of which Burdett is immensely fond (he has a Thai wife), is the only country in Asia that has never been conquered or colonized. The kingdom Thailand is sui generis -- a unique and sacred land -- a land of mystery.

Raymond Chandler, in his remarkable essay, The Simple Art of Murder The Simple Art of Murder, describes what a hero in the mystery genre must be like. "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man's money dishonestly and no man's insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in."

Burdett's hero, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, in spite of his many eccentricities, conforms quite closely to Chandler's formulation. The redemption he seeks is of the Buddhist variety (nirvana) and presumes reincarnation. He is a man of honor making his way through the mean streets of a dishonorable and thoroughly corrupt world. Married to a former Thai prostitute, he is assuredly not a eunuch, though he has eunuch and Katoey friends and colleagues. He is a common man who smokes too much dope; he is an unusual man who has a startling range of awareness that spans Western and Asian perspectives. He lives according to a code of honor and follows his Dharma.

Burdett's latest novel, Vulture Peak, deals with a contemporary phenomenon which is found in southeast asia of the black market human organ trade. Sonchai investigates a triple homicide where the vital organs have been removed from the three homicide victims for presumably commercial purposes. Near the start of the novel, Sonchai is discussing the case with the forensic pathologist and there is the following exchange...

"Any ideas?" the doctor asks when we have replaced the sheet.

"You mean whodunit? Only in the more general sense." She raises her eyes. "Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Adam Smith. Capitalism dunit. Those organs are being worn by somebody else right now."

It is a bit disappointing to see Sonchai taking the kind of reflexive cheap shots that liberals often cast against the right. This line of thinking ignores the fact that Baroness Thatcher has denounced in the black market in human organs as "slavery in bits and pieces." Burdett's Sonchai also seems oblivious to the fact that President Reagan, who was consistently pro-life, signed into law the national organ transplant act which created a legal mechanism for widespread organ donation and has helped to save thousands of lives.

One must acknowledge, nevertheless, that some very disturbing things going on in the world of black market organ trafficking. In the Middle East, what one might term "doctors without morals" are snatching the organs of refugees in the Sinai and selling them.

In China, which executes more people than all other countries in the world combined, there is no tradition of organ donation. Most transplanted organs in China, therefore, come from prisoners whose organs are harvested after execution on a regular basis.

The WHO estimates that over 10,000 black market operations, mainly kidneys, take place every year. This illicit business is highly profitable and exploitive. Poor people sell their bodies one part at a time getting paid around $2,500 to $5,000 for a kidney which is, in turn, sold for around $100,000 to $200,000.

The first successful kidney transplant took place in 1954 in Boston with the identical Herrick twins. Today if an American father, for example, were to donate a kidney for transplantation to his daughter it would be a legal act of self-sacrifice and heroism. If, on the other hand, a healthy young
American adult were to sell his kidney to a young female stranger for compensation (e.g. an -I-pad or a semester at college) it would be illegal (except Iran) and widely regarded as exploitation. The only thing that is different in these two cases would be the intentional state of the donor.

Burdett has clear libertarian sympathies when it comes to the legalization of prostitution. He writes, "the answer to the world economic crisis was obvious: legalize prostitution and tax it. At 15 percent per bang, deficits would shrink overnight." It is somewhat surprising to note that he seems more "conventional" with regard to the taboos associated with organ trafficking.

If one accepts John Stewart Mill's harm principle ("the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others... Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign." On Liberty (Dover Thrift Editions), then it seems that the most humane answer to the problem of human organ trafficking would be legalization and regulation. The fact is that thousands of people are dying each year due to the endemic shortage of organ donors--6,000 Americans per year died waiting for an organ in 2002 according to UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing).
A healthy human being can, however, live with only one kidney. What gives society the right to prohibit an individual adult's right to freely sell a superfluous body part, thereby creating the shady world of criminal trafficking?

Is capitalism really to blame for black market organ trafficking as Sonchai seems to suggest? Could Adam Smith and Capitalism not be the solution to the organ shortage dilemma that faces patients around the world? Thousands of people die each year due to the endemic scarcity of organ donors and the soaring demand. Would it not make more sense to legalize and regulate the trade in order to prevent the abuse and exploitation that come from making the practice illegal? If an adult is free to alter their gender via surgery then why shouldn't they be free to alleviate human suffering and prolong life by selling a kidney? Ultimately it comes down to this question, "Do we really trust individuals, regardless of income status, to govern themselves or not?"

Later on in Vulture Peak Sonchai encounters a devout Thai Buddhist monk who has this to say about farang (Westerners)...

"I never know where to start. They're so programmed by materialism, they think they want enlightenment, when all they're really looking for is a new kind of gratification, a thrill they can't get from a pill, or a bottle or a video game. When I try to explain that strong emotion is inherently unreliable and isn't what the Buddha meant when he referred to the heart, they think I'm being cruel. Thai monks may not be what they were, but they still have the perspective. For farang I despair. Hardly a one of them I meet who has a hope of being reborn into the human form. I see sheep and dogs of the future in designer T-shirts climbing up and down this mountain, getting in an out of the tourist buses."

"They're stuck in Aristotelian logic: 'A cannot be not-A,'" (says Sonchai).

"Tell me about it! The discovery of nirvana is the psychological equivalent of the invention of zero but vastly more important. Think of where mathematics was before zero and you have the level of mental development of the West: good/bad, right/left, profit/loss, heaven/hell, us/them, me/you. It's like counting with Roman numerals."

Ultimately Vulture Peak, like Burdett's other novels, presents us with an entertaining and provocative escape from a refreshingly different perspective. "Check them out!"

JOHN BURDETT RESPONDS TO MY REVIEW...

"Not bad, but IMHO you miss one huge point which is implicit if not explicit in the text. If you want my comment on your comment it is this:

The naive belief that serious social problems arising from materialism can be cured by resort to the criminal law is, unfortunately, itself a big part of the problem. It has not worked with drugs, or prostitution (over 5000 years of trying) and it has not worked with organ trafficking. This is not an issue of Left versus Right (another fatal distraction in Western thought), but of the underlying values of a society. If those values boil down to money, then money will rule whether you try to cure it with free trade or a police state or something in between. Where money rules you will have organ trafficking, drugs, prostitution etc - and an awful lot of psychoses. That's what the monk was trying to say in the book.

There is, of couse, no reason why you should take this from a Brit, when the greatest American thinker, economist and ecologist has expressed it so much more eloquently:

'The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father.
The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.
If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.
Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
When the last red man has vanished with this wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?

Chief Seattle
We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it, as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us.
As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you.
One thing we know - there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.'

Chief Seattle to the President of the United States." John Burdett 7/12/12

I RESPOND TO BURDETT'S RESPONSE

Thanks very much for your thoughtful clarification, John Burdett!

Capitalism, as advocated by Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and others, does not assert or imply that money must be the underlying values system of our society as you seem to suggest. Capitalism insists on the freedom of the individual to set his own economic or non-economic (e.g. ascetic) course. I would argue that capitalism is the most spiritual economic system devised by man -- precisely because it does not make any ideological demands on on its practitioners.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live inside of free market economies are not subject to thought control. I view advertising, with all its exuberant bad taste, as an essential expression of free speech. We are free to advocate for free markets (my preference), to revile free markets, or to pay no attention to the debate over free markets (from monasticism to "let's go shopping!").

Consider the case of George Lucas who has sold a lot of movie tickets and prospered under Western capitalism. Lucas does not seem to believe in capitalist democracy. He said in an interview with Charlie Rose, " I'm a very ardent patriot. But I'm also a very ardent believer in democracy, not capitalist democracy. And I do not believe that the rich should be able to buy the government. And that's just the way I feel."

In my view, Lucas has every right to say anything that he wishes to -- no matter how idiotic or hypocritical he may sound. "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it", wrote Voltaire. Yes, he was a conservative too in my book (see earlier post, Voltaire)!

Lucas's case could be duplicated many times over. Michael Moore, for example, runs a cottage industry in capitalism-bashing which seems to keep him prosperous and well-fed.

The Stalinist version of communism, a clear police state, insisted upon controlling not only the economic sphere but the spiritual/ideological sphere as well. That is why it was compelled to ruthlessly suppress the free exercise of religion which it rightly saw as a competitive to itself.

There are free societies and there are fear societies. A police state, whether communist or fascist, must be a fear state. I prefer to live in a free society and to promote freedom and liberty for all.

You cite Chief Seattle with whom I am quite familiar. I reside in Seattle in the summer months, London during the school year. I applaud much of his speech (interconnectedness of all things, brotherhood of man, etc.), but I must question his criticism of property rights. I find Chief Seattle's brand of socialism, however poetically expressed, no more attractive than that of Pangloss or Proudhon. Before you dismiss me as just another 'farang' caught up in a web of materialism, consider this...

Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776) wrote, "The property which every man has in his own labor, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable." The Wealth of Nations (Bantam Classics)
I think that PJ O'Rourke expressed it quite well when he wrote, "Property rights are not an invention of the rich to keep poor people off their property. Property rights are the deed we have to ownership of ourselves." P.J. O'Rourke, On The Wealth of Nations: Books That Changed the World.

Ultimately, individual property rights are our safeguard us against slavery (our right to own our bodies and our own labor) and tyranny (e.g. the king/chief/dictator owns all the land). They are the guarantor of freedom. They must, therefore, be cherished and protected.

Nielzsche wrote, "No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself".

When the Chief says, "You can't buy my land," isn't he really saying, "This land belongs to the chief!"?

JOHN BURDETT RESPONDS AGAIN!

"The problem I have with your response is the same as I outlined in my first response: naivete. Sure, it would be nice if Capitalism developed along the lines you suggest - but are you blind? It has emphatically not worked out that way at all. The economic system we have is dominated by corporations, not individuals. Corporations are legal entities - actually termed 'legal personalities' in a lot of text books, which owe no social duties at all and exist purely for the enrichment of shareholders. There is no point in listing here the destructive effect of vast multi-national corporations, but you will find a great many people with your views expressing dismay at the behaviour of such (sub-prime mortgages that brought the system down are a good example), without - and here lies the naivete - realizing that such behaviour is an inevitable result of the form of capitalism we have - which hardly existed at the time of Adam Smith. Nor have you addressed my point about criminality. What you actually have today is a world where whole cities, sometimes whole countries, are controlled by drug barrons. Where so-called democratic elections are actually funded from drug money. Where according to some respectable accounts one third of the money washing around the world is owned by drug lords - this is the real world, not the one Adam Smith wrote about centuries ago. This is Capitalism in the real world." John Burdett 7/13/12

I RESPOND AGAIN!

Dear John,

Thanks again for your reply. I will try to polish my spectacles and try once again.

Corporations are owned directly and indirectly by individual shareholders. The underlying businesses behind these corporations provide goods and services to the public. The better job they do of serving the public, the more sales and profits they will generate. If they fail to serve the needs of the public, then they will ultimately fail. These corporate profits are ultimately returned to shareholders who use them to buy houses, pay for education, raise families or buy illegal drugs. It is the spread of free market capitalism that has done so much to elevate living standards around the globe. I think you may be forgetting the vast constructive effect of businesses whether they are multi-national corporations (including publishing and film companies), night food stalls in Bangkok, or Micro-brewers from New Jersey (see above). This too is capitalism in the real world.

The subprime mess was a bit more complicated than you suggest above. Poor government policy choices were at least as much to blame as corporate malfeasance. When the "dream of home ownership" is elevated to sacred cow status by politicians and regulators of all political stripes -- beware.

Freedom always, by definition, implies the option of making poor or even evil choices. Freedom, therefore, necessarily implies the possibility of criminality. The complete absence of corruption is, therefore, not possible within a free society. This why we need a rule of law, a working justice system, law enforcement and detectives such as Sonchai. Nations that lack such an infrastructure ("countries controlled by drug barons") suffer in appalling ways.

Mystery readers love the genre because they know that the world is corrupt. They understand that mankind is programmed for criminality. The world is out of joint, but along comes a hero who walks the mean streets and commits himself to the struggle against criminality in himself and the whole world. The heroic detective, including Sonchai, battles against the forces of entropy and fulfills an essentially conservative role -- he restores order to the world.

Academic socialists such as Rousseau, Proudhon or Pangloss and their, dare I say, "naive" supporters such as George Lucas or Michael Moore help to inflict real suffering onto the real world (from yesterday's Stalin to today's Obamacare) by robbing individuals of their self-governing power, by undermining the cause of human freedom. From a libertarian perspective, it shows a lack of respect for humanity's ability to make life's hard choices and accept the consequences. From a Buddhist perspective, this demonstrates, perhaps, a distinct lack of 'compassion'.

If you like Vulture Peak you may also like America Invades: How We've Invaded or been Militarily Involved with almost Every Country on Earth by Kelly / Laycock. You will even find a reference to Burdett's hero in the chapter on Thailand.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on April 4, 2013
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 seductive streak to the high gloss of male fantasies, that means a double dose of frustration for Sonchai, who is already fretting over the possibility that his partner Chanya is having an affair. (In case you're a newcomer 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.

Originally published in The Nation, August 6, 2012
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on January 27, 2012
This series written by John Burdett is one of my favourites.
I always have to read the new book when it comes out!
The culprits are: The Author and his Protagonist!

This very intriguing detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, created by John Burdett, is at his 5th novel, after Bangkok 8: A Novel (Vintage), Bangkok Tattoo (Vintage), etc...
He is honest and pure, never can be bought. A real Buddhist on the Wheel.
But smoking marihuana when he is really down, and the love to his wife, an ex-bargirl who works on her Ph.D., make him human again.
And his boss is at his best this time, double-, triple- and more playing the protagonists of this very fine thriller.

Vulture Peak is a (fictonal) mansion on top of a (fictional) hill overlooking the fantastic tourist-trap island of Puhket..
It becomes the scene of a very bad triple-homicide involving the explant of the bodies internal organs, plus some of the externals (sexual, eyes, even the entire face..).
Sonchai's boss, Colonel Vikorn, puts him on the case - because he will run for the Mayor's seat of Krung Thep.
And a campaign against Thailand being a center for the international organ traffic will help him to be elected.
His nice poster is yet to be seen on every third lamp post in Bangkok...
Three very split-tongued American ex-Cia consultants appear to help the political campaign for the Colonel, and poor Somchai has to help, too.

With a BLACK amex-Card, our hero has to buy high-level designer cloths (Armani, etc ) - the poor boy, will have to travel 1st class wherever he has to go to, stay in 6 (!!!) Star Hotels - he really has to suffer...

But then he will meet his foes - the Chinese Twins known as "The Vultures".

A couple of so viscious women, You want to wash Your hands after You will have finished the book.

Because here we are: After You will have finished the book!
Because it will hold You 'til the last page, the solutions seemed to be soooo easy, but...
Nothing is easy in this Burdett book.

He, as always, leads us into a world full of madness, sociopaths, killers with and without rules, giving a good deal of social criticism to every istitution (Vatican f.e.) imaginable..

The reader will learn more about the traffic and the trasplant of human organs he ever perhaps wanted to know.
What can be trasplanted (everything? ALMOST everything) and what are the cruel consequences if something doesn't fit, but goes horribly wrong?

So our author has made a very fine mixture of strange humor, sociopatic thrill, carmic lessons and maniac acting.
But the fans of Detective Jitpleecheep are yet salivating weeks before the new novel has to come out.
He is like a good tasting, burning like hell Thai dish - You simply can't resist!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 13, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This latest installment in John Burdett's series starring Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a solid mystery that is, as usual, well plotted and clever. I found it a bit disappointing, however, in that it seems to contain fewer Buddhist references than Burdett's previous novels.

This series stands out for me because Burdett is adroit at weaving Buddhist philosophy into the plot, the dialogue and the mindset of his characters. It's fascinating to see how Sonchai approaches his investigations within the context of a Buddhist culture. As a reader, I have always viewed these books as an opportunity to understand a bit more about the ways that Buddhist principles play out in everyday life, in this case the everyday life of a policeman. It's one of the things that makes this series more interesting than many others.

At any rate, the plot of Vulture Peak revolves around the issue of human organ trafficking, which is unusual and makes for some good page turning. There are lots of colorful characters, along with the usual glimpses into the sex trade for which much of Thailand is known. And the resolution to the featured crime, while somewhat predictable, is satisfying. This time around, Sonchai ends up collaborating with a Chinese detective from Hong Kong, which adds a nice twist to the proceedings.

If you haven't yet read a Sonchai novel, I recommend you start with the first one, Bangkok 8. And if you enjoy that, then you will probably also enjoy Vulture Peak.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon January 18, 2012
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
John Burdett's novels would do really well on the big screen. I picture Keanu Reeves as Sonchai, although maybe Keanu is a bit too old now if the movies start at the beginning of the series.

At any rate, Burdett is really good at setting a scene and filling it with interesting characters, then weaving a plot that's fast-paced, fun and intricate. It's a page-turner, for sure, like the previous installments.

I didn't give it five stars because it's not an Earth-shattering all-time classic, but it is a highly entertaining read. I was also a little disappointed that some of the characters didn't get as much ink as I would have liked.

Burdett's books are probably a lot like Bangkok itself--colorful, messy, fascinating, and a place where one should expect the unexpected. Sonchai, a competent, honest detective who has feet of clay (but a pure heart), finds himself in the middle of an organ-trafficking scheme. He gets caught up with the beautiful, brilliant and unscrupulous Yip sisters, encounters a hideously disfigured rapist, reluctantly supports his superior's political ambitions, and partners with an emotionally unstable detective who is also on the case. While bodies pile up, Sonchai tries to repair his relationship with his wife Chanya.

Read this book, but read the others in the series, too. Burdett knows Bangkok and Thai culture like the back of his hand. Which might be worth a couple grand on the anatomical black market.
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