Top positive review
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Offbeat and open to many criticisms but well worth your sampling
on January 10, 2012
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.