Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Take a Deep Breath

There was a time when I presumed that John Burdett’s terrific series (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts) featuring Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the only practicing Buddhist on the local police force rolls, provided all I needed to know about the darker, sadder side of Thailand’s capital city. But then I discovered Timothy Hallinan’s novels about American travel journalist Poke Rafferty, who lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife, Rose, and their adopted daughter, who calls herself Miaow. Last year’s The Fourth Watcher was a standout, to be sure, but his new Rafferty outing, Breathing Water, is even better.

Hallinan’s books are more ferocious than Burdett’s, and he excels at creating frightening villains--in this case, a gross but oddly touching multimillionaire, Khun Pan. Breathing Water begins with a high-stakes poker game, set up as part of a sting operation by Rafferty’s cop friend, Arthit, to nab a couple of rich cheaters. But nobody is expecting the Big Guy, as Pan is called, to show up. “The three millionaires don’t look alike,” Rafferty says, “but they share the glaze that money brings, a sheen as thin and golden as the melted sugar on a doughnut.”

Rafferty beats Pan badly at cards, his prize being the chance to write the multimillionaire’s much-sought-after biography. But many of Pan’s rivals don’t want any such book to come out, especially just before an upcoming election. On the other side are rivals who want to expose Pan’s darker secrets.

Rafferty is in a very dangerous position--as Arthit says, “If it would clarify your situation to think about it visually, then imagine this: You’re at the bottom of the Chao Phraya, wandering around on the riverbed without a map, and breathing water.”

Not an enviable predicament. But it spawns one hell of a story.

POSTSCRIPT: John Burdett has a new Bangkok thriller, called The Godfather of Kathmandu, coming from Alfred A. Knopf in January 2010. And one of his earlier standalones, A Personal History of Thirst, is available very cheaply at BookFinder. Now you know.

1 comment:

Clayton Moore said...

Great post about two terrific authors. If you ever get the chance, the original audiobook of Bangkok 8 is read by B.D. Wong, who captures Sonchai's philosophical menace perfectly.

More about the back catalog of both authors in this 2007 column of mine: http://www.bookslut.com/mystery_strumpet/2007_06_011213.php