John Burdett’s Bangkok series first burst upon the crime reading world in 2003 with the publication of Bangkok 8. The fourth, The Godfather of Kathmandu,is now published in the UK (28 January 2010, Bantam Press, Transworld, £12.99).This remarkable quartet of crime novels, in which Western materialism comes face to face with the spiritual approach of the East, has won universal plaudits. In The Godfather of Kathmandu Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep investigates the horrific murder of a rich American, is caught between his boss Vikorn and Vikorn’s sworn enemy General Zinna, and is captivated, at a time of personal grief for himself, by the Buddhist path to enlightenment offered by a Tibetan lama in Kathmandu. Recommending Bangkok 8 highly in Shots Magazine, Ali Karim wrote: ‘It does really make you take a long deep breath, as its story is so fresh.’ Having read The Godfather of Kathmandu, I agree. I was left breathless, although I managed to recover in time when I was offered the privilege of interviewing its author. An unforgettable novel – go for it!
Q. Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, who is the driving force of these novels, is memorable for far more than his powers of detection. He’s half-Asian, half Westerner, he treads the thin line between the law and crime with dexterity and juggles his career path with his spiritual Buddhist journey to the Far Shore. Was his original conception in your mind solely as a detective, from which his character then developed, or did you plan him as such a divided character at his conception?
A. I did not plan him at all. I think his Eurasian genes plus his mastery of the cultures of both East and West make him vulnerable to a kind of schizophrenia. It is not so much that he does not know who he is, but rather he could be almost anyone, depending on what language and culture he happens to be in at any particular moment.
Q. The most striking aspect of this novel for me is the way you have presented Thai life as an overall picture, so that its crime, sex and drugs aspects become an accepted part of everyday life, rather than separated as part of an underworld. You live in Bangkok, so did the novels follow from your life there, or did you move there after your novels and research made it irresistible?
A. I wanted to live in Thailand from the first visit in 1986. This was purely a consequence of Thai charm, however, since I knew almost nothing about the country until I came to live here in 2001. I had not lived full-time in a developing country before. I had no idea the extent to which the economy of the poor blends with the underworld in a land without social security. Also, the importance of the black economy is much more obvious in a developing country. In fact, a huge proportion of the funds sloshing around the world derive from the illegal drug industry, but in the West this reality is hardly referred to. If estimates are correct that one third of the world’s wealth is black money, then in reality there is hardly a large building project on earth that does not make use of funds which are tainted to some extent.
Q. You’ve given Sonchai a Western absentee father, and a Thai upbringing with his prostitute mother. Over the years Sonchai has developed a Western side, both in his likes (he’s an American thriller-buff, for example) and in his career (such as his relationship with Kimberley Jones). Tietsin, his guru, is the ‘Godfather’ of Kathmandu. Did you plan it this way because it opened up opportunities for Sonchai to see Asian life both as an outsider and as a native, or because it enabled Sonchai to bridge the divide between West and East for your readers?
A. From the start Sonchai has been sincere and even zealous about his Buddhism. Although he looks to the West for cultural entertainment, he always looks East when it comes to matters of the sprit. However, as a bilingual Eurasian who surfs the Net, he cannot help noticing that there is an alternative form of Buddhism out there. He was brought up in the Theravada tradition, which is roughly the equivalent to the orthodox Christian church in that it claims to be the ‘original’ teaching. Tibetan Buddhism, on the other hand, derives from the highly developed form of Buddhism called Mahayana which fled India during the Mogul invasion and continued its development in the monasteries of Tibet. Sonchai, a natural intellectual, is intrigued and seduced. All of a sudden he is the ignorant Westerner asking naïve questions about Buddhism.
Q. Is there a sharp divide between the ex-pat and the Thai ways of living in Bangkok? If so, do you feel rather like Sonchai yourself?
A. There are huge cultural divides. Most Southeast Asians in my experience are secure in their very long traditions and although they may develop Western tastes, these tend to be superficial. The underprivileged, in particular, tend to be immigrants from the Northeast with their own culture, which differs from standard Thai in both language and tradition, so in reality Bangkok is largely a city of immigrants. If you add in the Moslems, the Sikhs, the Hindus and the Chinese, almost everyone is a kind of ex-pat. For example, I have never found a taxi driver who was brought up in Bangkok.
Q. The central murder-victim, the American, dies horrifically in this novel by a means that springs from the storyline. Your novels all seem to have a spectacular means of death. Is this an aspect that intrigues you? It certainly does the reader.
A. I think a thriller writer comes to view his corpses in a similar way to a forensic scientist. While a lay person may be horrified by the crime, your author is professionally intrigued and wants to know how the heck he can get out of the trap he has set for himself: I never plan my books.
Q. ‘If I know I’m crazy, does that mean I’m not?’ Sonchai sets himself some glorious philosophical conundrums, and his overall way of meditation keeps your text alive and bubbling. Your first novel was introduced by one reviewer as by ‘a wonderful writer’. Having read even the first page of The Godfather of Kathmandu no one could doubt that. Have you always wanted to write, or was it your law career that sparked off a wish to write crime fiction. And why crime fiction in particular?
A. I always wanted to write. My first writing assignment at school took place when I was six years old. Everyone else in the class wrote about two sentences. I went on and on and had to be stopped by the teacher. When I graduated with a degree in English and American literature, however, I found there was no work. The problem of providing for myself took precedence over trying to write, so I read law. When I finally had sufficient dough to quit law, I had developed enough commercial nous to think about my target audience: who buys what kind of books? I remembered that as a stressed-out lawyer the only novels my overworked attention span could tolerate were thrillers. I figured that was probably true of a lot of people in the 1990s, so I settled on that form. I had acquired quite a good grasp of the police practice by then, even though I only had a few criminal cases in my career.
Q. You have created some splendid characters in this novel on both sides of the line between law and crime. Did they all develop from your imagination after your research of the Thai scene, particularly the crime and sex worlds, or from people you met, or are they entirely figments of your imagination?
A. The characters themselves tend to use real people as starting points, which are by no means exclusively Thai. The Thai-Chinese pharmacist, for example, was inspired by a Hong Kong Chinese woman I once worked with as a lawyer in Hong Kong long before I came to live in Thailand.
Q. I have read that you worked in Hong Kong in the legal profession for some years, and Hong Kong immediately summons up a stereotype picture of ‘business, business, business’. Does Hong Kong life also have a deeper dimension quite apart from the ‘business’ element, or were you attracted to write about Thailand, not Hong Kong, because it is so different?
A. Hong Kong differs from Thailand both in reality and in the popular imagination because Hong Kong has such a strong ‘British’ side to it, even today. Thailand has never been colonised and has held onto its very strong, centralised culture through both British and Japanese colonisation of the surrounding countries. Therefore the image of the ‘exotic East’ is much more clearly defined when one writes about Bangkok as compared with Hong Kong. On the other hand, Hong Kong does have a deeper, and less penetrable, aspect. Hong Kong Chinese tend to have kept their Confucian traditions and I have called on these somewhat in building the Chinese characters in Godfather.
Q. According to Wikipedia, you would like to move beyond the crime field once the Bangkok series is completed. Is this so, or have you not yet decided where the writing path will lead you? It seems to me that in The Godfather of Kathmandu you are already moving the boundaries of crime fiction determinedly outwards. I was impressed that the murder of the American was the focal point of what is a much wider canvas; it didn’t dominate the novel to the extent that its whys and wherefores outshadowed the overall Asian scene, both criminal and spiritual. Would you want to leave crime behind altogether or go further along the path you’re already treading? I realise this may be a tough question to answer, however, when you’re not yet finished with Sonchai and Bangkok – at least I hope you’re not.
A. I am not sure. In the past two books I have realised how flexible and open-ended the crime thriller form can be. I shall probably continue to experiment and to stretch the form as far as it will go. Who knows, it might develop into a genre of its own: the mystic thriller?
Q. Rebirth is a recurring thread through your novel – naturally since Buddhism plays such a large part in the novel and in Sonchai’s personal life, and colours his attitude to what is happening. It never feels ‘dragged in’ as a theme, however. Is this because, as you live in Bangkok, it becomes part of everyday life for you?
A. I think the idea of rebirth or reincarnation is such a powerful one for all of us, that to live for even a short time in a culture where such a possibility is part of the fabric is to risk having your outlook subverted. I have no memory whatsoever of a previous existence, but I cannot help thinking about what it might have been like, or how the next one might turn out. Even though I’ve never admitted that I believe in it, not even to myself.
Q.Does Kathandu play such a distinct role in your mind as Thailand while you’re writing, or do all the Asian countries intrigue you to the same extent?
A. All of Asia is endlessly fascinating for its variety, history and geography. Since we in the West generally know almost nothing of this history, living here can be like a continuous Discovery programme. Nepal, though, occupies a very special place in my heart. I visited Kathmandu even before I visited Thailand and have returned two or three times a year ever since. The tiny mountain state with its holy men, its mountains, its Hindu rituals, its Buddhist refugees from Tibet, its high-achieving Western mountaineers, its echoes of an intensely romantic chivalric past, similar to that of Rajasthan: how could I resist?
Q. It’s been a great pleasure both to read The Godfather of Kathmandu and to have the opportunity to throw questions at you, and thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. My last all-important question is: when does The Godfather’s successor appear?
A. The successor is written and with my agent. I cannot say more than that, except that it does star Sonchai as usual.
The Godfather of Kathmandu.
Published by Bantam Press, Jan 2010
£12.99 pbk Airport edition.