Bangkok 8

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By John Burdett (Knopf, clothbound)

Books can be deceptive enough to break your fragile little heart. On the surface of "Bangkok 8," everything marks it as a typical mystery novel, from the gimmicky cover to the maverick police officer serving as the main character.

But pity the poor genre fan who cracks this volume open expecting a standard police procedural set in an exotic location. The mystery itself involves a murdered U.S. Marine, a car full of drug-crazed cobras, a giant phallus carved out of jade, an eccentric billionaire with a taste for sexual perversity and a mysterious black prostitute who is definitely not what she seems.

The narrator, a Thai cop named Sonchai Jitpleecheep, is one of the best things about "Bangkok 8." A devout Buddhist with a criminal past, Jitpleecheep is just about the only honest officer on the cheerfully corrupt Thai police force, where, as he explains, every cop is a profit center. When his partner and best friend is killed at the scene of a bizarre murder, Jitpleecheep must unravel a fantastically complicated web of plots to figure out who is to blame.

The author moves us through this labyrinth with subversive power, crafting some vivid scenes and characters, and offering some inventive twists -- though most readers will spot the biggest surprise in "Bangkok 8" from about 10 miles offshore.

But it's clear that the author's real interest lies less with the mystery than with the fascinating city his characters are trying to survive in: Bangkok. Here, the ancient cuddles up to the postmodern and abject poverty plays slap-and-tickle with global tourism, all without a chaperon to keep the date from getting dirty as hell.

Most of all, "Bangkok 8" is an exploration of the city's sprawling sex industry. The book introduces us to dozens of prostitutes, including Jitpleecheep's mother, herself a retired bar girl who lost her virginity to a client at the age of 16. Burdett does not shrink from portraying the ugliness of the sex trade -- the exploitation, the disease, and the grotesque couplings between underage Thais and Western sex tourists. But the book also explores the complicated social roles the industry has come to play in Thailand.

Ultimately, it becomes clear that Burdett has a strong point of view on the sex industry -- a view that comes damn close to turning some of his characters into mouthpieces. That doesn't make "Bangkok 8" a bad book. But it does leave a reader feeling a little preached to.

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