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Blog Archive November 2012

Phnom Penh Noir launch in Cambodia

On Friday evening 30th November 2012 there is a book launch at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. I will be the emcee and below are some of the comments I will make at the launch and want to share with you.

First to recognize:

Phnom Penh Noir is the anthology of fiction. For the first time a group of foreign and Cambodian authors have joined together to write stories set in Cambodia creating a bridge for the local and an international audience to travel over. An anthology such as this one is designed build a cultural bridge between communities.

Ten authors and artists who co-operated in this unusual project have come from around the world as well as from Cambodia to celebrate their participation in the making of Phnom Penh Noir.

I predict that in the future, we will look back at tonight as the beginning of new opportunities for Cambodian writers to reach an international audience.

Previous to Phnom Penh Noir, no one had tried to publish a collection of different voices, local and foreign. I took that as a challenge. Let’s follow the lives of Cambodians in the aftermath of The Killing Fields. While those events remain a powerful backdrop, what makes this collection of short fiction so compelling is to examine the contemporary lives and obstacles of people living and working in Phnom Penh.

The ghosts of Khmer Rouge period continue to haunt those living in the present—they say: “remember us and what happened here, what it meant and what it continues to mean.”

Phnom Penh Noir is a collection of stories and lyrics written as a testament to the people who survived the horror of those bleak days and to those born later, who have no direct memory of the past.

The stories in Phnom Penh Noir roam between these two communities, the old and the young, one remembering, one forgetting. And the stories come as well from the expat community living here.

The authors explore the tension between generations and between locals and outsiders. As readers, you become witnesses to these stories of the hearts and minds of people.

These Cambodia inspired stories are reflections about what we are capable of doing and the nature of forgetting and forgiveness. The authors in Phnom Penh Noir took up the challenge to make the lives of people in Cambodia understandable to others. And these stories make human conflict intelligible, accessible and memorable. How do we go about reconciling another person’s suffering and pain from the past with her pressure to find closure and move ahead?

That is a larger question writers ask whenever they turn to fiction to address the existential issues that underscore our stories and books.

For more information: www.phnompenhnoir.com

Posted: 11/29/2012 7:49:33 PM 

 

Ghost Whisperers in Asia

President Obama spent Sunday 18th November in Thailand, Monday 19th November (six hours) in Burma and Monday/Tuesday 19th and 20th in Cambodia. Along the way he bumped into the history of a region. Like a nine headed naga history raised its heads and spit fire from the caves of local politics, culture, and prejudices. You wouldn’t have seen the fire-eating dragons of history captured in the photographs taken along Obama’s three-day journey.


President Obama and Prime Minister Yingluck

Instead what you and the rest of the world saw were the photos of the American President kissing Aung San Suu Kyi, flirting with Prime Minister Yingluck, clasping hands with Hun Sen remain the enduring images of his trip. History doesn’t photograph as well and is easily nudged into the ditch. Obama’s Southeast Asia trip was textbook present day symbolic image making. Not an angry dragon floated above the heads of the leaders and Obama.


President Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi

We can’t undo the past, we can only reconcile with the aftermath, the damage, the loss, the suffering. Any member of the political class will acknowledge the difficulty of brokering reconciliation. No one is happy to deal with past conflicts, struggles and the long trail of victims history produces.

To admit wrongdoing done by one’s ancestors is to travel down a path that post politicians wish to avoid. It is easy to blame those not in power or foreigners for the misfortune. Victims gather at the time of major events such as a presidential visit to the area. They demand to be heard. They raise their voices, demanding admissions of guilt, compensation and punishment. Korean comfort women used as sexual slaves in WWII want compensation from the Japanese. Victims of the Cambodian Killing Fields want the Khmer Rouge leaders punished for genocide. The Chinese remind their citizens of the rape and massacre of Chinese civilians in Nanking by the Japanese during WWII. The Thais and Khmer armies exchange gunfire over the border surrounding a historical temple.


President Obama and Prime Minister Hun Sen

The Burmese have a library of historical conflict with ethnic minorities. To be fair, the President did mention the need to provide security to the Rohingya who’ve lived for generation in the western part of the country. That is as close to history as President Obama came, and the Rohingya pogrom is contemporary, ongoing and not really history.

Historical narratives are like a flag blowing this way or that way depending on the prevailing political winds. When it suits a government to advance a present interest, then the historical wrongs are revisited to justify present day claims and demands. It is an old trick and like a professional sleight of hand, the pulling of the historical rabbit out of the hat unifies the crowd. Makes them marvel at the magic.

President Obama wasn’t going to be drawn into the magicians circle and become part of their act. No doubt he understood that the magicians in Southeast Asia wished him to be their apprentice; to applaud their performance. It was better to hug, kiss and hold hands. That was the way to win hearts. That is the new show business, reality show model. History is for nerds, troublemakers, demagogues, eggheads, and ideologues.  Besides Americans have their own naga headed creatures from the invasion of North America and the genocide of the native population to slavery, civil war, and segregation. It is hard to criticize another countries history when your own ghosts still roam the land.

There are some explanations why presidents and other leaders visiting another country avoid getting caught up in the local history. It means taking sides. When someone takes sides, it means he or she has made an enemy of those on the other side of the historical divide. President Obama didn’t come to make enemies, he came to meet allies, make friends, and cement American interest in the region. Historical accounting would have scuttled those goals. History is something leaders don’t talk about with each other. History is a taboo unless of course there is a compelling national interest.

The past is a difficult time and space problem for any democracy to resolve. There is often strong disagreement over what happened, and with both sides claiming their evidence of evidence should prevail, neither side can be reconciled to a conclusion that favours their rival.

Elections don’t resolve this standoff either, and that is the dirty secret democracy keeps to itself. The ruling elites, to the extent history runs against their interest, ignores it, waits for the victims to die off or become marginalized. Democracies are no different than other forms of government in the suppression of inconvenient truths from the past. School books, TV and radio, newspapers have traditionally baked the history cake that is sweet and tasteful. No culture wants to recount their unvarnished past. Democracies are in the forgetting business like every other system.

History is like dark matter and energy, which comprise the overwhelming amount of the universe. History, malleable, removed from living memory, subject to manipulation is a geo-political minefield. When President Obama visited Thailand, Burma and Cambodia he is walked through that minefield as well as mingling with the ghosts of the past. People forget the details of what happened long along. When I covered the UN War Crime Tribunal in Cambodia last November, what became clear was how little most of the young generation knew about the Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Killing Fields Justice: a Witness to History.

As those who lived through that time grow old and die, the day will arrive when no one alive remembers what happened. That’s the day history truly enters a new phase. The evidence of what happened in the past exists outside the experience of anyone alive. The loss fades, becomes abstract, and the past because that alien foreign land where the dead are left as the only citizens. Politicians struggle to keep coalitions together in the present. Obama was looking to the future, a legacy by coming to Southeast Asia, and that goal is rarely found in the graveyard of the past.

The last reason that history is left along the road to solving contemporary issues of the day such as trade relations is politicians are caught up in the present with an eye on the future. They don’t see a percentage in glancing back over their shoulder over events caused by others in the distant past. History is long, diverse and complex spanning generations and centuries. A president, like the rest of us, lives inside the confines of a 24-hour day. There is only so much information that can be processed during a day, a week, a month or a term of office.

We are overwhelmed by information. In Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t the author notes the human brain is capable of processing only 1/1,000,000 of the daily information of 2.5 quintillion bytes. We fall behind every day. There is no way we have discovered to keep up with this onslaught of new information.

A lot of that daily information may be ‘noise’—it isn’t useful—but finding the signal in that maze of noise is still bound by 24-hours that makes a day. With so much new information to process, separate into signals, evaluate, test and form and shape into ideas about policy it is no wonder that history—all of that ‘old’ information—remains in the back of the drawer.

Asia, like every other region, has many ghosts walking the land. The explosion of information threatens the past, which is slowly being lost in the ‘noise’ of daily information. Who can keep up with the present information, might be able to factor in the past information. But we aren’t at that point. We may never reach that point either. Our daily information journey puts us further behind each day. We can take a historical journey through The Killing Fields, the South of Thailand, or Burma’s long oppressed ethnic groups, but the longer we spend in those past wrongs; the further behind we fall in the current daily information overload.

The long history of discontent, simmering resentments from the past, and unresolved borders lay buried behind the sweet smiles, flashing eye contact and handshakes. It also lies buried behind the information treadmill, which keeps increasing speed and as fast as we run we find that we only fall further and further behind with no hope of ever catching up.

History teaches a valuable lesson about data: the rapid growth of information radicalizes, ghettoizes, and localizes communities with strong beliefs. They have their own TV stations, websites and blogs where such communities exist inside a bubble believing in their alternative reality built from cherry picked data. No wonder information contained in ‘history’ has become another data point used by one side to support the superiority of their set of claims.

The unresolved and rival historical claims existing between various Southeast Asian countries may be exceeded by the internal conflicts over historical injustices inside each country. As President Obama danced in and out of the region, he seemed to be saying between hugs and kisses and handshakes, “Move along people, stay close to me, there is blue sky ahead and we’ll walk toward the sunlit horizon arm and arm together.”

Remember the kiss of today. Forget the graveyards of yesterday. The ghost whisperers make certain that state of affairs never holds for long.

Posted: 11/22/2012 7:50:43 PM 

 

Omnishambles Thai Style

The Oxford Dictionary has included a new word in their 2012 edition—omnishambles, which is defined as “a situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of blunders and miscalculations.” The tradition in Thailand is to shortened long words. There is a good chance that omnishambles will enter the Thai vocabulary as something like ‘om’. The shortened word has the kind of sound that sounds like a chant, the kind that takes you into a meditative state.

Last week provided a good example of ‘om’ in overdrive as the Thai authorities sought to limit the damage of a bailed alleged rapist of a young Dutch tourist.

The cover up or denial of unpleasant facts by local officials was immortalized in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. In that case it was the mysterious outbreak of disease that officials feared if known would harm tourism. In an economy dependent on tourism when there is a crime against a tourist or an outbreak of a communicable disease, the question is how do the police, courts, prosecutors and other government officials respond?

Do the local officials cover up? That is the Death in Venice solution.

Do they blame the tourist? That was recently the Thai solution to an alleged rape committed by a Thai tour guide against a 19-year-old Dutch woman in July 2012. The facts at hand (remember facts reported in the local press are often only distantly related to what actually happened) indicate as follows. The young woman had been on holiday in on the Island of Krabi. She was on holiday with her boyfriend. On the evening of her birthday, she went to dinner with her boyfriend and a tour guide. The boyfriend left earlier leaving his girlfriend in the company of the tour guide. The way back to the hotel, the tour guide allegedly raped the young Dutch woman. I use ‘allegedly’ because the tour guide hasn’t been tried and convicted of the crime and until that happens no matter how damning the evidence (and in this case from the press reports, it seems the evidence is strong) we must remember he’s innocent until proven guilty.

That said, the evidence (doctor’s medical report, victim’s statement, suspect’s confession, photograph of the victim’s bruised face) suggest a strong case against the suspect, who ran away after the incident. He either went into hiding or managed otherwise to avoid the police for a couple of months. The police finally caught him (or he voluntarily turned himself in according to some news reports). When a court released the suspect on bail, the victim’s father made and released this video on YouTube, which has gone viral with over 400,000 views. His anguish and despair over what happened to his daughter and the release of the suspect on bail pulls at the heart.

From politicians to the police the response has been devoid of anything approaching compassion for the victim or expressions of sorrow and regret over what had happened. Krabi police uploaded two YouTube videos but the second video was removed. According to the Bangkok Post,  the police video “The Truth from Krabi” that was removed had around 50,000 views, 24 likes and 355 dislikes. It wasn’t a hit and became another example of the ‘om’ factor.

But the YouTube video by the victim’s father above remains online with a approval rating that is the opposite of the Krabi police videos. Meanwhile, the media heard a number of officials resort to the kind of rationalizations, justifications, and frankly ugly statements such as because the rape victim had gone to dinner with the suspected rapist that she got what she deserved. Omnishambles is the correct description of the various statements and counter videos made by the police. If you read the comments following the Evil Man From Krabi YouTube video, an overwhelming number of Thais come out in support of the victim and who are shocked and disgusted by the official reaction to the rape suspect being released on bail.

The suspect is someone who avoided the police for a couple of months. When the police finally caught up with him, he confessed to the charges, retracted the confession and was bailed. The fact he made himself unavailable for a couple of months suggest that he’s not a good candidate for bail.

The case against granting bail was a good one. The suspect already had shown through his previous conduct that he might flee to avoid being prosecuted for his crime. Also, the suspect is a tour guide who has committed an act of violence against people who hire him. He’s free to return to his work for tourists who likely would not know he’s facing rape charges. His being out as usual puts other tourists at risk. Would you allow your teenage daughter to use this tour guide knowing he’s a rape suspect? This is strange way to encourage tourism.

In sum: the suspect confessed to the crime, which had been well documented by the doctor who examined the victim. The suspect did a runner. He physically beat up the victim. He raped her and left her on the road. The attending doctor said it looked like she’d been in a motorcycle accident. Despite these facts, the suspect who confessed to aggravated rape was released on bail. He’s back on the street or beach in Krabi and presumably free to continue his line of work.

We learn a lot about a culture by examining the degree of transparency and openness in the process in which they seek to gather evidence, evaluate the evidence, based their decisions on the evidence. We learn a great deal about notions of justice and the equality of treatment without consideration of ethnicity, nationality, or social status. The Krabi rape case is a classic text, like Death in Venice, which shows the operation of law enforcement and the administration of justice up close and personal.

Here’s the first Krabi police video posted in response to the Evil Man from Krabi also on YouTube:

Unless you are fluent in Thai, you won’t follow what the policeman on this video says about the incident. It is just as well that you don’t understand what he’s saying. The explanation is rambling, defensive and not terribly coherent. This isn’t a parody; it is full blown inside glimpse of the sub-culture and attitudes of law enforcement officials. There are no subtitles for the video. It doesn’t seem to be have been produced for an international audience.

Notice the inflection in the voice when he uses the word ‘farang’ and then substitute ‘jew’, ‘Latino’, ‘gay’ or ‘black’ and you don’t need to understand the language to understand the underlining attitude. The tourist is the ‘farang’ the other, not one of us.

The ‘official’ response to the criminal case by those in authority (as opposed to thousands of Thai citizens) exposes a number of important attitudes. First, sensitivity to the suffering of someone who is the victim of a crime of violence is not acknowledged. There is no sense of the huge physical and psychological damage suffered by the victim. Instead, there is a jackboot mentality—we are the boss and we do no wrong. The authoritarian mindset is tailored made for enhancing the omnishambles. The police don’t come across as serving justice or helping the victims of crimes of violence. They are simply scary men who can do whatever they want, and whatever they say is the law.

Second, the only way to get attention of people who run their own little nasty local empires of impunity is to expose them; put them in the spotlight, and let the world judge for themselves whether going on a holiday to a place with police officials with these attitudes and priorities is worth the risk. If something goes wrong and you’re a tourist on holiday, then it is likely your fault. You will be left chanting ‘om’.

Third, police reform has been the subject of many commissions and committees but nothing has ever been done. It is always business as usual. Part of the reason ‘reform’ is so difficult is illustrated in this case. It is not changing a procedure, training in the latest detection techniques, or new uniforms. The aftermath of handling the rape case shows the deep-rooted culture of impunity, a top down military command culture, a culture with a warrior mentality and anyone who doubts, criticizes or complains is attacked.

The Evil Man from Krabi is such an attack against a legal system that is perceived to have committed an injustice. You can see and hear the full arsenal the authorities bring to media. They alternate between justifying their handling of the case, pointing the finger at others, attacking the victim, looking into blocking the YouTube video, and concentrating on how to limit the damage to their face and tourist industry.

Resort locations like Krabi have developed a local economy based on tourism. Millions of dollars are spent to create an international image of Thai fun, hospitality, and service. But the PR machine explodes once the monkey wrench from the dark side is thrown into the works. The Thai authorities, based on statements and videos they’ve released, suggest that tourists are a commodity, someone to be bought and sold, to be marketed to, managed, relieved of money. No one in power was reported as speaking of the violation suffered by this young woman, about her loss of dignity, or about her right to respect as a human being.

The case also exposes the knee jerk reaction of the police and other government officials that it is the foreigner woman who is at fault because of the clothes that she wore or that she had dinner or a drink with the rapist. In other words, foreign women get what they deserve. This ‘evolved’ feudalistic worldview is one where the police, in their mind, are always right. They close ranks. They have the power. You have none. They issue rambling statements of justification. They aren’t used to someone challenging their version of events. The fall back position is usually along the lines of a ‘misunderstanding’ when it is clear that what they claim are the facts are exposed as distortions and lies.

What the officials and police fail to understand is with social media networks across the world, the old true and tested tactics that work to shut up the locals no longer works. They no longer control the information or the message. Millions of people can watch, read, and listen and more importantly question, judge and criticize the officials and police. They seem unable to understand the new world of information which exposes cant, hypocrisy, lies, obfuscation, and excuses for what they are.  Omnishambles exposes them. They have no place to hide.

The danger exposed in Krabi isn’t the suspected rapist who is on bail, but the officials who are in charge of security of the thousands of tourists who flock to the beaches of Krabi and elsewhere in Thailand. If the message gets out that their safety and welfare is not a priority that message has registered loud and clear in this case. When reform finally comes—as it will—the agency behind the reform will be the outward pressure from millions of Thais who take heart that attitudes of those in power will ultimately change.

Posted: 11/15/2012 7:47:03 PM 

 

007 and the Body Count

I saw the new James Bond movie Skyfall this week. It was as though a Chuck Norris movie and Silence of the Lambs had been remixed with Daniel Craig playing Chuck Norris. Hector Hannibal morphed into villain Silva in Skyfall. Daniel Craig, in the tradition of 72-year-old Chuck Norris, went bare chest and killed more extras than appeared in the movie Gandhi. It was more like computer game killing than the real thing. People who are in the drone business must have the same detachment–this is another day, another job, attitude toward killing.

After the movie, I tried to remember how many people James Bond killed over the course of the 2 hours movie time. There were too many expendable characters who died to keep track. This must be something like working the immigration desk at the airport as one 747 after another lands and their weary passengers queue with their passports.

Someone with a lot of time on his hands has indeed gone through the Bond movies and added up the dead bodies.  In the 1967 Bond movie You Only live Twice the final tally was 196 killed. Bond didn’t kill all of them. Apparently Bond’s highest kill ratio was Goldeneye where he dispatched 47 bad guys. It depends on how you count and who is doing the counting.

Here’s an 8 -minute YouTube montage of several Bond films where the body count is 401 kills.

My feeling is that Daniel Craig came close to that number in Skyfall. But I could be wrong. Besides, the body count doesn’t really matter until you are a politician or a general and need to explain why you need more money. When you are watching a movie, you find yourself weaving from scene to scene with the character rather than a cold, calculated computer keeping track of the bodies as they fall.

What Skyfall and other movies like this demonstrate is how violence is an essential part of the entertainment industry. Movies are only part of the story of how violence is disseminated. The nightly TV news, YouTube, newspapers, tabloids, blogs, Internet feeds, Tweets—all are fused with body counts, details of acts of violence, threats of violence in the future. Our cultural meal is heavy with violence as the main course. It seems there can never be too much violence.

Anyone who writes crime fiction is hardly in the position to point a trigger finger at another person who uses violence in the entertainment or news industry. Vincent Calvino, over the course of 13 novels, has killed a fair number of people. I’ve contributed to the overall cultural body count. As I recently wrote to my friend and fellow blogger James Thompson, violence is a ritual. It probably always has been. Slaughtering of animals and human beings to appease the gods made violence sacred. Religion gave violence moral authority and purpose and made killers into warrior heroes. Killing in the name of a higher cause is a way to recruit killers and put them to work. Someone else’s higher cause for murder never comes close to matching your higher cause for murdering. And so it goes.

Violence falls generally into a several broad categories that may at times merge.  First is the use of violence as an act of revenge. Capital punishment is the State acting as the agent of revenge. Often revenge is privatized in movies, books and TV. Skyfall is the classic revenge movie where the villain uses violence and mayhem to avenge the wrong done to him. He’d been betrayed, and what better response to betrayal than to murder the person who turned disloyal?

The second category includes killing competitors. In modern terms competitors are ‘enemies’, ‘terrorists’, ‘demons’ who, once they enter this class, can be killed with a clear consciousness. In a state of war, whether against a country, or war against drugs, the killing is to obtain a victory over bad people and bad forces, and those who do the killing are given promotions and medals. At the highest levels of the political class, a certain sociopath personality is useful to use killing and violence to achieve policy goals. While they don’t often do the killing themselves, they use psychopaths to do the dirty work.

A third category is violence committed by psychopaths, that small but mentally deranged group of individuals who kill not out of revenge or to eliminate a competitor but out of the thrill or pleasure. An inordinate amount of media is given to such killers. They are fundamentally different from the other killers. Psychopaths feel no remorse, guilt, shame or empathy for their murders. Brutality and cruelty don’t register except as part of the pleasure enhancement of killing.

This leaves us with the question of where James Bond fits in the violence matrix. In Skyfall, Daniel Craig’s killings fit all three categories. He’s a man for all seasons in the killing game. To keep that high body count, it is useful to employ all the categories and hope that the audience doesn’t notice that this is rarely the reality of life. But whoever said that James Bond had anything to do with reality? Indeed, having seen Skyfall is a reality check on violent death, its causes, actors, and the reasons behind the body count.

What Skyfall does bring home with the huge body count is that we know nothing about the people Bond has killed. They have no back-story. They have no mother, father, brothers, sisters, friends, neighborhood where they played as children. As they never come to life, we feel nothing when Bond kills them. It seems the Bond franchise is in perfect harmony of the modern technological age of remote killings of people who we are never allowed to know. They are extras in life. They have no name or identity. Body counts on the industrial scale require that detachment. We can’t really allow ourselves to know and identify with the people our leaders, police and military kill.

Skyfall is a failed attempt to turn the James Bond Franchise into a Noir Film series. The problem is James Bond Ian Fleming didn’t write Bond as a noir character. Though Daniel Craig does a credible job of playing the noir lonely hero, but his clothes are too well tailored. He looks more like the manager of a Boy’s band. Also the noir atmosphere dissolves into Pulp fiction slapstick each time Silva, the villain, turns up with a fresh platoon of goons who in the tradition of the gangs around the Joker in Batman, die and die in inexhaustible numbers. Skyfall never decided what kind of movie it wanted to be and the evidence of that unresolved struggle leaves an unfinished decision. This wasn’t James Bond. Then what was it?

I have a theory why the movie didn’t work. The director and producer of Skyfall wanted to bring in both the old James Bond audience and the newer, noir audience of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There are no heroes who beat the system in noir. There are bad guys, and that is a good place to ask the question: who really are these bad guys and why must they die by the busload and in anonymity except for their leader?

It started me thinking one of the keys to labeling a book or film noir is knowing your bad guys and those around them as well as your hero. That’s knowledge is worth having because then the killing is put in a different context.

As in real life, in fiction, we ask ourselves: Exactly, who are the bad guys?

Now, that is a difficult, complex and dangerous question.

Posted: 11/8/2012 7:55:48 PM 

 

Crime Writing Master—John Burdett’s Vulture Peak

I have long avoided reviewing books written by friends. It is hard to be objective when you know the writer. As a general rule, it is a good one. Every now and again, an exception comes along and like a good lawyer, you ask yourself whether to go with the general rule or make an exception.

In the case of John Burdett’s Vulture Peak, I’m going with the exception to the rule. Let me explain why.

When I open a crime novel my wish is to plunge inside, a full headlong immersion into another world of events, characters and drama that carry me on a white water raft of sheer joy, wonder and adventure. Once the raft is pulled from the river and you think about the experience, the rush of letting one’s self go and be carried away is the memory imprinted.

Reading John Burdett’s Vulture Peak is that kind of literary white water rafting rush I alluded to above. For those who seek the safe comfort of categories–genre and literary–Burdett’s novel will cause you to rethink such a flat, arbitrary and meaningless distinction.

Since Bangkok 8arrived on the scene, Burdett’s Royal Thai Police Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a luk krueng, has attracted a huge international following. In Vulture Peak, Sonchai is assigned by his boss to investigate an illegal organ trafficking operation.

Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai’s boss, is an inspired creation—a character that possesses all of the qualities of a sociopath—is running for election in Bangkok. The colonel is a control freak who has “outmaneuvered, out cheated, outwitted, out sold, out bought and out killed his enemies”—in other words, the usual uniformed official whose graft-reaping skills have prepared him to run for political office in Thailand. Those lurking in the shadows behind his campaign take the story to Yunnan Province.

The colonel’s riff on the mental mindset that justifies corruption is itself worth the price of the book. Among the cast of characters are two beautiful and sinister Chinese sisters with a luxury house in Hong Kong. Lilly and Polly, unlike Colonel Vikorn, who is merely a sociopath, have inherited psychopath gene through their grandfather who taught them the pleasure in killing, severing, and suffering of others.

Not surprisingly, Lilly and Polly—two seductive, medically trained young upper class Chinese women—emit the equivalent of Gama death ray. They are two dangerous women. Sonchai detects the lethal warnings and is alert that once he enters their zone he’s at mortal risk. In an act of self-preservation, he avoided bedding either or both of them. It seems the twins had seduced their own father.

Sonchai is married to an ex-hooker working on her Ph.D. Chanya’s role displays Burdett’s ability to dial into the female frequency passing through the static between feminists who come from different cultures. Murder, drugs, blackmail, ambition, and power gather speed like a runaway train down the side of a mountain as these characters go about the business of finding, harvesting and selling organs.

Creating memorable characters is difficult and rivals the creation of a sense of place, with the culture, sweep of history, style, fashion and shifting alliances and power. Burdett also excels at place. There is no one well-defined Bangkok. There are sub-districts buried far away from the public eye, especially the roving eyes of foreigners. But Burdett has burrowed inside the way of thinking of local cops, students, and others. The demons are kept at bay. Just. From Bangkok, the story moves to Dubai, Hong Kong, Phuket, and Pattaya. Sonchai travels on an American Express Black Card (given to him by Colonel Vikorn), which is the ultimate global passport that opens all doors.

What makes the scenes work is the detailed knowledge of the author of each place. He has taken the pulse of place, investigated the deeper layers of life that go on beneath the surface.  Sonchai’s search for the black market trade in transplants takes him inside the lurid sexual world of Pattaya where the entertainment venues offer something for everyone: heterosexuals, gays and katoeys.

What drives Vulture Peak forward is an awareness of crime, corrupt police and politicians, and excess commercialism as it rolls through the traditional cultures of Asia. Burdett has a handle on the gathering forces of change and has created a great cast of character who stop at nothing to achieve wealth and power. International crime fiction has come to maturity in the last few years. Burdett’s Sonchai series is one of the best around. He has the courage to take risk in terms of characters and settings, and never falls into the trap of recycling elements that while they may appeal to loyal readers would keep him narrowly confined.

Vulture Peak tells a larger story of commercialization. Prostitution is commerce. Body parts are commerce. Politics and policing dive into the deep end of the commercial pool, and Burdett does a brilliant job in bringing the full weight of a money culture on the morality of loyalty, dignity, and compassion.  Burdett’s Vulture Peak is a search for truth as the reader follows Sonchai who does his best not to stray too far from the Buddhist path.

It is a struggle to remember of non-attachment with the Black American Express Card in his wallet, but at the end of the day, Sonchai witnesses the enlightenment in the red light district and on the way home with Chanya while discovering the dharma of love.

Now you know why Burdett’s Vulture Peak is an exception to my general rule not to review a friend’s book. Sometimes you need to read a friend’s books to understand why someone became your friend in the first place.

Posted: 11/1/2012 8:54:23 PM 

 

 

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