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on May 16, 2013
John Burdett's Vulture Peak: Crime, Corruption, and the Search for Happiness and Identity
By Dr. Robert C. Covel
When I first learned of the title of John Burdett's novel Vulture Peak, I emailed the author and asked him if the title had any significance because the Heart Sutra, one of the Buddha's most important sermons took place on Vulture Peak. Mr. Burdett's response was a rather cagey response: "That's a very astute question . . . . I'll leave it to you to decide when you've read it." I took his response as a challenge, and I have read the novel more than once, considering the possible levels of meaning. My efforts were rewarded, and this essay is my response to his challenge.
Vulture Peak (2012) is John Burdett's fifth crime novel with the protagonist Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a half- American, half Thai policeman from Bangkok. His father was an American GI, and his mother is a retired prostitute and now madam of a brothel in Bangkok. In Vulture Peak, as in the other novels in the series, Sonchai is faced with a world of drugs, violence, corruption, and the sex trade. Vulture Peak focuses on the black market world of trafficking in human organs, and Sonchai's investigations involve him in a massive global conspiracy that provides human organs by any means necessary for those rich enough to pay.
The plot synopsis sounds sordid and grim. While Burdett certainly provides enough of the disturbing details of human degradation, this novel (like Burdett's others) demonstrates levels of meaning, thought, and even humor that the reader would not expect. In particular, Burdett infuses his novels with strong currents of Buddhist philosophy and ethics. The novel Vulture Peak in particular has subtle levels of meaning that repay the reader willing to reread the novel and to consider the deeper themes.
The novel's title on the most literal level comes from the name of the lavish estate at the top of a mountain. Many of the novel's most gruesome events take place at the estate, especially the harvesting of human organs, so the vulture image, with its images of scavenging, is appropriate. However, anyone with a background in Buddhism recognizes the allusion to the Heart Sutra. John Burdett's elusive response to my question about his title led me to explore that level of significance.
The Heart Sutra challenges the Western concept of existence and identity, showing that the concepts and ideas that lead us to a sense of self and existence are delusions based on flawed perceptions. In Buddhism, the concept of the self is composed of the Skhandhas: Form (matter), Sensation (feeling), Perception (conception), Mental Formations (impulses), and Consciousness (discernment). the Heart Sutra demonstrates that all of these aggregates of energy are constantly flowing and changing. Thus, the concept of the Self as a constant is a delusion based on mere appearances and faulty assumptions. That delusion causes most of the world's suffering, as is explained in the Four Noble Truths.
Burdett's novel demonstrates in a powerful and often disturbing way the truth of those delusions about the nature of existence. One of the most basic ways in which we believe ourselves to exist is based on our physical appearance. We identify ourselves with our bodies, and the component parts thereof. In a novel about the trafficking of human organs, that delusion is quickly shattered, and, like a mirror, its shattering destroys the image of self. Sonchai is investigating instances in which bodies (some of which have been murdered for this explicit purpose) are taken apart like jigsaw puzzles, and the parts (livers, corneas, hearts, and even genitals and faces) are removed to be sold. The scenes in which the organs are removed and displayed are especially disturbing, perhaps because of our strong associations of body parts with identity. That association is probably especially true in the case of genitals and faces. The surgically removed genital references in the novel are understandably disturbing.
Perhaps the most disturbing scene in the novel (at least for me) occurs toward the end of the novel. A character named Manu has been horribly mutilated to the extent of not having a face. He has been promised a transplant in return for his gruesome services (this part of the book recalls the movie Frankenstein and the character Igor for me). In this scene in Burdett's novel, Manu is trying on surgically removed faces like masks. Chan, one of the characters, says, "'He's learned that without a face, he doesn't exist." As Manu tries on different faces, he attempts to take on the identity of the former owner, including the face of woman, and he "pirouettes and poises coquettishly." This grotesque and surreal scene demonstrates the delusion of existence from a Buddhist perspective. the scene recalls a Zen Koan "What is your true face?" And of course the answer is that one does not have a true face because one does not have a true identity.
A related theme in the novel, which is related to the search for identity, is the search for happiness. That secondary theme is portrayed most vividly by Dorothy, an emotionally and sexually repressed Western (Farang) woman who is directing Sonchai's wife Chanya's master's thesis about the women involved in the sex trade. When Linda is explaining her search for happiness, Chanya explains that, as a Buddhist, she doesn't think that way. Linda then calls the Western "pursuit of happiness" (quoting the Declaration of Independence) as "A kind of Godot thing right at the center of the American mind." Of course, since the Self does not existence except as a flowing interwoven stream of Skhandhas, happiness is also an illusion.
The search for identity and the quest for happiness are central concepts in the Western mindset. John Burdett's novel Vulture Peak weaves a convoluted and interesting plot around characters as they explore those themes. While John Burdett is a master at writing the "Whodunit," his novels go far beyond mere detective fiction and become philosophical meditations on ontology and epistemology. Like everything else is the world, his novels are not always what they seem.
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on December 2, 2016
Some of the concepts, such as organ trafficking, are unsuitable for young readers. There is a fair amount of graphic violence, too. That said, John Burdett's characters are delightfully complex and the reader will never predict most of the plot twists. And Detective Jitpleecheep's boss, Colonel Vikorn, never ceases to amaze as he seesaws between concerned police leader and brazen criminal, often with just a shrug of his shoulders.
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on September 7, 2017
The first book in this series had me hooked, but the latest entries have pushed it off my must read list into the if-there's-nothing-better. The characters have become caricatures and the backdrop of Bangock has become jaded and tired with nothing new added and the whole place feeling like a set piece. Sonjay's constant whining doesn't help. He's a pale shadow of his former self and this feels phoned-in at best.
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on August 10, 2016
This is third book of this series that I've read, primarily because Sonchai is such an intriguing character. He's an intelligent man with deep spiritual beliefs who has to navigate the vagaries of criminal behavior in a deeply corrupt law enforcement system. He constantly has to make comprises and live with realities he far from comfortable with, but he does his job well and earns respect as a result. These books illustrate that life is messy and the best we can do is to act based our better selves when we can and hope for the best when we can't.
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on March 18, 2015
I have just finished all five of the series by John Burdett on the Buddhist policeman in Bangkok. The themes in all the books has been about the underside of Southeast Asia...drugs, pornography, the sex trade, corruption. This one deals with the international organ trade. The subject matter was a "little rough" for me which why I undoubtedly gave it 4 stars. On the other hand, it is a subject worth exploring. The exploitation of individuals by others is a constant theme in this book. Sad, but true. The author does a really thorough job of connecting the dots in this unregulated business. Start with book one, and read them through to the end. They are fast reads.
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on July 12, 2014
I've read all of the Sonchai Jitplejeep mysteries and they are so close to my heart (in this case, quite literally - Vulture Peak is about the body part black market). I spent 8 months in Bangkok and, when I long for a little bit of Asia, this is where I go. John Burdett must have a little Thai blood in him, it's so finely ingrained in his characters. He's literally managed to inhabit the body of his detective, who is alternately brilliant and sentimental, pulling at my heartstrings while solving some horrifically brutal crimes. The best of both worlds, I think.
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on December 7, 2013
John Burdett does a wonderful job intermingling the sleaze of a corrupt Bangkok with the fragile integrity of an intensely spiritual Buddhist cop. Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a great protagonist, insider to the corrupt police force, supplementing his income with his mom's brothel, and yet an outsider so beyond corruption that all the politically tricky cases come to him. He solves them with insights born from deep meditation on Buddhist precepts. Add a touch of ganja and local superstition and you've got the case pretty well wrapped.
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on February 11, 2013
John Burdett has four more books to his credit in this series. His techique is clever: the matching of a unusual criminal activity with the skills of a investigator. Sonchai is a Budhist and trys to walk the line between a monk-like life and the need to solve a crime. In reading the book one finds all the details of an activity which is not such a commonplace crime; that alone is interesting in its self. Then an honest man in a corrupt police department is charged with solving a crime which not many people want to see solved. Sonchai pulls it all together and unravels the clues and motives. John Burdett uses his experience to weave a good drama.
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on November 11, 2015
I like John Burdett's novels very much. I have never been to Thailand but I get a clear sense that he has! His characters are engaging and unique, showing a very dark side of Thailand, (corruption, violence, exploitation, prostitution, etc.) , but also kindness, non-attachment and spirituality. I love that juxtaposition! This is not my favorite of the series, but I like the characters and the series and I'm also looking forward to the next novel, that I just noticed has been released!
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on July 18, 2015
Well written, as usual. Story line has all the well-known characters of the other books, but is perhaps a little far-fetched, at least at this time. Then again, what do I know of how crazy the world really is?! The book does raise interesting current ethical issues regarding a potential dark side of medical tourism, as well as exploring issues regarding the commodification of women's bodies, all presented within the confines of a coherent plot and readable story line.
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