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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Murder, mayhem and brain eaters abound in two Thai thrillers


THE CORRUPTIONIST, by Christopher G. Moore. Heaven Lake Press, 2010, 470 pp., $12.95 (paper)
THE GODFATHER OF KATHMANDU, by John Burdett. Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 300 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)

Thailand, as I write this, is stepping back from major civil unrest. And Canadian author Christopher G. Moore has been blogging frontline dispatches from his home in central Bangkok.

Thanks to a monetary windfall, Moore's long-running series character Vincent "Vinny" Calvino was able to give up ad hoc investigations and now works as a "consultant." In "The Corruptionist," Calvino matches wits with a stunningly beautiful and very smart Thai female investigator named Tanny. Adopted and taken to the U.S. while in infancy, Tanny has been dispatched to Thailand to dig up information that her employer hopes will prevent a rich, obnoxious American entrepreneur from concluding a business tieup with a rich, eccentric Thai partner.

As it turns out, other forces are also at work to thwart the arrangement. The intrigues are ratcheted up a few notches after the Thai partner is mauled to death by his own pet lions.

In a subplot, Calvino helps Tanny trace her birth mother, and the story of her estranged Thai family, including a politically radical mother and sister executed by a police death squad, dovetails with the narrative.

Calvino is forced to flee Thailand for his own safety, leaving his mentor and close friend, police colonel Pratt, to be targeted by assassins.

Moore's understanding of the dynamics of Thai society has always impressed, but considering current events, the timing of his latest is absolutely amazing.

John Burdett's Thai detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep and his transgender partner Lek are back. Sonchai, the offspring of a Thai "business girl" and an American soldier, speaks good English, and usually investigates homicides involving local "farangs" (foreigners).

For author Burdett, the crime of murder must be applied creatively. In this case, the victim, an American film director, had his skullcap opened and his brains removed — and presumably eaten — while still alive, in a replication of that memorably nauseating scene from the Ridley Scott film "Hannibal."

But Sonchai has been pulled off the case and promoted to consigliore by his boss Col. Vikorn the police commander (and Mario Puzo fan), who in addition to enforcing law and order vies with his nemesis army General Zinna for Bangkok's lucrative drug and flesh markets.

Flying to Kathmandu to set up a major drug deal, Sonchai encounters Tietsin, a demented Tibetan Lama who dispenses heavy-duty mysticism and heroin on the side. As fate would have it, the clues to the director's murder also lie in Kathmandu.

The manic stream of exaggerated characters and bewildering situations, with villains reminiscent of Batman movies and bizarre methods employed for homicide, would no doubt earn the approval of Hannibal Lecter. Likewise, the extreme greed and murderous lust of other characters present protagonist Sonchai — a devout Buddhist — as the only sane man in a world gone flamboyantly mad.

To mix cliches, when the knives come out in a Burdett novel, there's never a dull moment.

Both the Moore and Burdett novels fit into a chronological sequence, so if you enjoy these, there are earlier works a-plenty.

It's inspiring to see how Thailand has become the wellspring for a continuing stream of entertaining fiction — not necessarily limited to the two authors under review. I hope to review another book set there by comparative newcomer, Timothy Halloran.

In contrast, Japan — once the setting for poignant romances ("Sayonara"); swashbuckling sagas ("Shogun"); and fast-paced potboilers ("You Only Live Twice") — is rapidly falling off the literary map. Where are Burns Bannion, Miura-no-Anjin and Superintendent Otani when we really need them?



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