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.