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Godfather Of Kathmandu, The

by John Burdett
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Product Details

  • Publisher: Knopf
  • Publishing date: 12/01/2010
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-13: 9780307263193
  • ISBN: 0307263193


A Q&A with Author John Burdett

Question: Just to give some background for new readers, what sort of man is Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, and where do we find him at the beginning of The Godfather of Kathmandu?

John Burdett: Sonchai is the illegitimate son of a Bangkok prostitute and an American G.I. father whom he has never met, although he is always trying to do so. After participating in the murder of his yaa baa (meth) dealer when he was a teen, he was forced to undertake some serious rehabilitation at a tough forest monastery in the far North of Thailand (his mother was connected to the abbot). To continue his rehabilitation after he disrobed, his mother found him a position as cadet in the Royal Thai Police Force, which brought him under the influence of the notorious Police Colonel Vikorn, whose feudal value system permits him to regard his commission as a licence to traffic in narcotics. In The Godfather of Kathmandu, their relationship develops to the point where Vikorn appoints him as his consigliere in the style of the Sicilian Mafia, after watching an illegal copy in Thai of the Godfather movies. In his inner life Sonchai is a devout and--unusual, considering his background--rather erudite Buddhist who is permanently tested in his faith not only by the kind of work he has to do for Vikorn, but also by his attraction to beautiful women. His spiritual side does not always prevail.

Question: Some time ago in the New York Times, you said this novel was the final installment in the Bangkok series. Does that still stand?

John Burdett: I did say that, although I think I only said it the once. At the time I could not see how to hold the attention of Western readers after I had said so much about Thailand in the previous books. Although there is no bottom to the mysteries of Siam, many of those mysteries are somewhat esoteric and hard to explain to anyone not interested in Buddhim or Southeast Asia. However, in writing The Godfather of Kathmandu I realized there was plenty of scope for having Sonchai do some international travelling for Vikorn. This he does in Godfather, enabling me to share my great fascination with the Kingdom of Nepal, particularly Kathmandu, and also with Hong Kong, where I worked for 12 years. In the next book, which I am half way through (the working title is Vulture Peak), there is a lot about another of my favorite countries, France.

Question: Four novels into the series, how do you think Sonchai has changed?

John Burdett: Readers tell me Sonchai never stops changing. I usually blame Buddhism: there is no constant in life but change. Perhaps another reason for his changes is my continual delight at how flexible the so-called thriller form can be. In particular, I have decided, rightly or wrongly, that the form does not need an over-simplified morality where the action is shared predictably between goodies and baddies. I see the form as capable of more maturity--and more interest--than that. Therefore Sonchai, as the central character, bears the agony of a genuine living morality in which it is not so easy to tell right from wrong; nor is it always possible to do right even when he knows which side the Buddha is on. This dilemma is shared by his Tibetan guru, Tietsin, who finesses it in his own Tibetan way, while Sonchai continues to agonize.

Question: You’ve noted that there’s no shortage of material in contemporary Bangkok. How are you finding the city as inspiration for fiction these days?

John Burdett: There is no limit to things of interest on an esoteric level, but having already exploited the best plums, I have to think how to share subtler aspects. One which interests me greatly is the intertwining of superstition with Buddhism at the grass roots level. For example, when one of my contacts in the local prostitution industry was given a house by her doting lover, she could not live in it until nine monks had blessed it in an elaborate ceremony that lasted all day. She confided in me that it wasn't because of her good looks or the devotion of her lover that she'd acquired a house, but because of the two hundred eggs she had promised the Buddha if He gave her one. I went with her to donate the eggs to the poor after first dedicating them to the Buddha at one of the wats. These kinds of details have to be slipped into the narrative, however, unlike the major themes of prostitution, Western johns, drug trafficking and police corruption which have become the main pillars of the narrative. In Vulture Peak, I also dare to look a bit more closely at local politics, which are quite medieval and remind me of Dante's Florence, right down to the color coding for different political tribes. Here in Bangkok we have red shirts and yellow shirts who regularly get into fights during demonstrations.

Question: How does a former lawyer and British ex-pat occupy the head of a conflicted Buddhist cop? As a writer, is there a "way in" for you to Sonchai’s mindset?

John Burdett: My father was a cop and my first years at the bar in England were spent working with cops and criminals. The cops were always stressed out of their minds, but what I noticed in London and saw repeated in Hong Kong was the peculiar camaraderie that often exists between the perps and the cops, as if they live in a world which they both understand and regard as real, whereas the lawyers, judges, and social workers were regarded as mere fantasists who had to be indulged for the sake of the system. In Hong Kong, I also realised that there are certain police procedures and habits which are the same all over the world, from investigating, arresting, charging, incarcerating, and rehabilitating, to the use of informants and corruption. Vikorn's patriarchal persona contains echoes of a certain station sergeant at a police station in Hampstead, London, with whom I had dealings. As far as getting into Sonchai's spiritual aspirations, that springs out of a fascination with Buddhism. I've always had a kind of metaphysical curiosity--I was one of those very rare literature scholars who loved metaphysical poetry--but it did not flower in adulthood until I started to read into Theravada. You could say I'm an accidental Buddhist, because I only started looking into that religion in order to build up the character of Sonchai. Although I've not formally become a Buddhist, I'm hooked on it as a "science of the mind."

Question: You’ve talked about getting away from detective novels in the future. What’s next for you?

John Burdett: I've realized there is more potential in crime fiction than I first thought. I'm always looking for a form that can express the perpetual dialogue between East and West in a dramatic way that readers will find compelling. At first I doubted that crime fiction could carry that kind of baggage, but now I'm not so sure. I shall continue to try to make crime pay for the next few books. After that, who knows? The Buddha said the future is inaccessible. But then he also said he was omniscient.

(Photo © Joanne Chan)

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  • Really Disappointing
    From Amazon

    I've read the last three in this series. Bangkok 8 and Bangkok Tattoo were excellent. Bangkok Haunts less so. With The Godfather of Kathmandu it appears that Burdett is just mailing it in. I give it two stars because of some of the interesting, mostly parenthetical, observations. The plot is a real mess. A tragedy occurs to one of the characters, yet I didn't feel it, and I didn't believe the character felt it. Trying to follow the permutations of the Vikorn vs. Zinna wars, the smuggling of heroin by a telepathic Tibetan, and the murder or suicide of an American film director is just a little too much. None of it fit together, none of it felt like it could have actually happened, and none of the characters other than Sonchai (who was fleshed out a bit in the earlier books) was interesting. I think maybe the author is just getting tired of this subject. It was hard to read. I try to read books all the way through, and stuck with it to the end, but it was a chore to do it. Instead of discipline, the author gets more and more preposterous, and that just doesn't do it for me. He's talented and capable of writing well and I hope he doesn't try to milk this milieu for yet one more time and goes on to different and better things.

  • This is an extremely worthwhile series with more to come
    From Amazon

    For those of you who have not yet dipped your toes into the ocean of John Burdett's magnificent Bangkok novels (BANGKOK 8, BANGKOK TATTOO and BANGKOK HAUNTS), I do not recommend a full-immersion baptism into the world of Sonchai Jitpleecheep before reading THE GODFATHER OF KATHMANDU. While some series are new-reader friendly when the latest installment is published, the Bangkok tales really need to be experienced from the beginning to get the full effect. That may be asking a lot of the uninitiated, but it is truly a rewarding experience as Burdett has created a rich, layered world for his readers to become immersed in. Sonchai, one of the few members of the Bangkok police force who does not accept bribes, is a devout Buddhist whose mother co-owns a gentleman's show bar with his supervising officer, Police Colonel Vicorn. Vicorn in turn has been involved in a power struggle with Thai Army General Zinna for control of the "illegal" enterprises that are the lifeblood of Bangkok's economy. Sonchai often finds himself caught in the middle of their struggle with frequently deadly --- and occasionally hilarious --- results. One of the few people whom Sonchai can trust is Lek, his junior police partner and a pre-op transsexual. That merely scratches the surface of Burdett's world. As I said, you really need to read those first three books. Once you have done that, you will want to immediately turn to THE GODFATHER OF KATHMANDU, which takes Sonchai in new and more complex directions. The novel begins some six years after the conclusion of BANGKOK HAUNTS. Sonchai is on an emotional edge, reeling from a tragedy that occurred at a point in between the two books. He has also come under the sway of Tietsen, a charismatic Tibetan lama in exile in Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. Sonchai, having been appointed by Vicorn as his "consigliere" after Vicorn viewed The Godfather, had originally been dispatched by Vicorn to meet with Tietsen for purposes of putting together a narcotics deal (yes, with a lama). This deal would give Vicorn a leg up in his continuing power struggle with Zinna and provide Tietsen with the funding he needs for what appears to be a suicidal invasion of Red China. As a show of good faith, Tietsen provides Vicorn with information that results in one of Zinna's mules getting arrested, thus interrupting one of his drug-smuggling operations. Upon meeting Tietsen, Sonchai wants to become an initiate into his apocalyptic version of Buddhism. To do so, however, he has to facilitate that narcotics deal. Matters are complicated by the investigation, or lack thereof, into the grisly murder of a farang (that's white man to you, fella). The victim is a Hollywood filmmaker who was a frequent and generous visitor to Bangkok's sex clubs. It's an investigation that Vicorn would want swept under the rug, but Sonchai can't let go of it, particularly because the murder seems tied to the Thomas Harris series of novels concerning Hannibal Lector. And once Sonchai discovers that the dead man had made frequent visits to Nepal, he becomes even more obsessed with the case. Complicated? Yes. And it is made more so by Burdett's frequent and extremely entertaining side trips into the culture of Bangkok, trips that are entirely necessary for a full appreciation and understanding of what is occurring at any given moment in THE GODFATHER OF KATHMANDU. But while you might find that you are hanging on to the plotline by your fingernails, you will be immensely entertained while doing so. Burdett can go from funny to horrific to erotic and back again in the course of a page or even a paragraph. There is a hilarious story, for example, about a standoff between Vicorn and Zinna over a hijacked drug shipment that is worth the price of admission all by itself. Additionally, his east vs. west comparisons are always welcome even if one has difficulty swallowing the revisionist historical accounts. This is an extremely worthwhile series with more to come. --- Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub

  • Godfather and Draqon Lady
    From Amazon

    As John Burdett includes non-stop eating in "The Godfather of Kathmandu," let me poach on that theme and suggest that this highly original crime novel is much like a Thai food banquet. Very rich, complex, and loaded with those little red peppers that explode on contact. Overall, an engaging and highly entertaining novel. Burdett's protagonist, Thai Police Inspector Sonchai Jipleecheep, is certainly one of the more interesting characters in current international mystery fiction, and in this episode of the"Bangkok" series, he reaches a crisis point in cop vs. Buddhist monk manque existence. Sonchai has two major tasks to undertake in this story--serving his police chief/mafia don boss while moving toward soul cleansing and nirvana through the auspices of a Tibetan holy man cum drug lord AND solving the bizarre murder of an American film producer who has long been a Bangkok sex tourist. The paths of these challenges immediately begin to criss-cross and soon lead Sonchai to the doorstep of Dr. Mimi Moi, defrocked pharmacologist and Bangkok social legend. "The Godfather of Kathmandu" is definitely one of the most creatively written books I've read in the past year, and left me marveling at author Burdett's knowledge of Bangkok and its social underbelly and Buddhism and its many schools. A bonus is the extensive tour of Bangkok's restaurants and Thai cuisine that are a continuing part of the story. Excellent read and highly recommended.

  • Exotic misadventures
    From Amazon

    Is it possible to be a good cop on a spiritual path while working in the corrupt Thai police force? Sonchai Jitpleecheep is carrying it off quite well, until his mobster police chief boss (Colonel Vikorn) watches some old Godfather movies - and asks Sonchai to be his consiglieri. Sonchai's mother (who runs a brothel) and his wife pressure him to accept. The salary is huge. How else can they afford to educate their six-year-old son to rise above poverty and crime? Reluctantly Sonchai decides to take on tons of black karma for the sake of his offspring. Then the boy is killed in an accident, and Sonchai's stuck with the bad karma without an excuse. To cheer up his depressed consiglieri, the Colonel gives Sonchai a challenging, high profile case: a rich American movie director has been found dead in a flophouse, murdered in a gruesome manner reminiscent of Hollywood horror films. Sonchai is half farang (foreign) and speaks perfect English (learned from his mother's customers). The Royal Thai Police Force depends on him to solve murders involving unfathomable foreigners. When he's not smoking dope, meditating or consulting the I-Ching online, Sonchai is a brilliant investigator. He also turns out to be an efficient though guilt-ridden negotiator for his drug-dealing boss. In keeping with the outrageous storyline, the supplier, a Tibetan mind master, becomes Sonchai's spiritual advisor. All this is only the beginning of a plot guaranteed to keep your head spinning. John Burdett has a scintillating prose style, a genius for creating bizarre characters, and a comic gift that carries him through the most amazing moral dilemmas.

  • Not my style of writing
    From Amazon

    This book gets good reviews for the "quirky" or "nutty" style of the author's writing. I am not impressed. Mixing murder and serious Buddhist doctrine with "quirky" and "nutty" commentary is simply not my thing. I am having a hard time finishing this book, mainly because it keeps putting me to sleep. Also, I don't much like moral ambiguity, and this book is full of it. Buddhism is not morally ambiguous, and the author's pretense that it is only makes me dislike the book.

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