A Great Post 9-11 Novel in Disguise

John Burdett’s Bangkok Tattoo, his second in a series of “mystery” novels featuring a Buddhist cop named Sonchai Jitplecheep, created some controversry with its attitude toward the sex trade in Thailand and its supposed creation of stereotypes of Westerners. The novel received many good reviews, but few reviewers seemed to notice that Bangkok Tattoo is an excellent post 9-11 novel in the way that it shows the influence of that event on other parts of the world. Jitplecheep’s involvement in the investigation of a murdered CIA agent and his encounters with two jaded/incompetent CIA operatives also on the case, provides a fascinating view on the fantasies we’ve fed ourselves while taking on an enemy that is not a nation but a state of mind. on several levels, from the mysteries of his violent past to his conversations. Perhaps one of the main points of Burdett’s novel is how the rest of the world has to live with America’s rather unimaginative interpretation of “terrorism” and it’s equally unimaginative response to terrorism.

The genius of the novel is how it manages to deal with these themes in a non-didactic way while still being successful as a mystery-thriller, a study in extremely deep characterization as we find out more about the murdered CIA agent, and a fascinating look at the effect of American policies on moderate Moslems.

In this case, you can clearly see the damage a genre label does to a book. Burdett’s Bangkok Tattoo is several things at once, does them all successfully, and yet to most people it’s, on the surface at least, a lurid sex-and-violence-filled mystery novel. This kind of categorization tends to limit and dull discussion about a book.

Anyway, if you haven’t checked out Bangkok Tattoo, you should.

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3 Comments

  1. And the third is the best of the bunch – and yet, even though I had extreme technical-related issues with the first two, Burdett has such a compelling voice and unique take that they stuck in my mind long after more technically sound crime novels faded. Go figure.

  2. This is true, Jeff. “America’s rather unimaginative interpretation of ‘terrorism’ and it’s equally unimaginative response to terrorism” suffuse the entire book, but without it becoming the point of the book, which is a really tricky balancing act to perform.

    My review (at Strange Horizons) focused more on the Buddhist aspects, because that is what particularly interested me, but you’re totally right about its post-9/11 aspects.

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