Sunday, January 24, 2010

"The Godfather of Kathmandu"

John Burdett is a nonpracticing lawyer who worked in Hong Kong for a British firm until he found his true vocation as a writer. He has also lived in France, Spain, and Thailand. He is the author of A Personal History of Thirst, The Last Six Million Seconds, Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his latest novel, The Godfather of Kathmandu, and reported the following:
Page 69 begins: “The victim’s name was Frank Charles. He owned a luxury condominium on Soi 8.”

We are at the crime scene where a gigantic American lays disemboweled on a flop house bed with the top of his skull removed. The speaker is a colleague of Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the narrator: a Eurasian who spends much of his professional life bridging the gap between Thai and farang (Western) culture. The deceased was a wealthy Hollywood producer who rented the room, which he used to entertain prostitutes sometimes as frequently as three times a day. The slaying was elaborate, brutal, meticulous and seems to include implications of cannibalism. It is unlikely that a Thai girl could be the culprit. Indeed, there are no obvious clues except for a selection of books and screen plays from the Western noir tradition; but first Sonchai has to explain to his Thai colleague why so many Western men come to Thailand to participate in the flesh trade:-
“Don’t they have prostitutes over there?”

“Of course, but farang suffer greatly from a disease called hypocrisy. That may be why he was here in the first place. What does his passport show? How often did he visit Thailand?”

“Four times a year for the past ten years.”

I open my arms in a sort of invitation to Detective Sukum to share my dubious expertise on the subject. “It may be a safe working hypothesis that he was one of those famous farang who are also sex addicts, who make regular visits to Bangkok while pretending to be working on their laptops at home. There are quite a few literary figures like that, and even more from the California entertainment industry, and lots of judgmental British journalists as well, not to mention Hong Kong lawyers. That being so, he might have bought his condo for its proximity to Soi Seven.”

“What happens in Soi Seven?”

“The Rose Garden.”

“It’s a brothel?”

How to explain the Rose Garden? “Not exactly. It’s full of freelancers. It suits young mothers who need spending money whether they’re married or not, girls with boyfriends they need to service during the evening, women with part-time jobs who can slip out of the office to turn a trick or two before going home to supper.” It occurs to me that a homily is called for. “The unpalatable truth is that promiscuity makes men happy, and quite a few women, too, especially when they get paid.”
Whether by art or coincidence page 69 encapsulates the main themes of the novel: the popularity of global sex tourism; the blank incomprehension of ordinary Thais at the ways of Westerners; the inability of Western culture to contain or come to terms with heterosexual male promiscuity and the hypocrisy that arises there from; the huge wealth gap between East and West; the risk of dire consequences for foreigners who take too much for granted. I would say the “Page 69 Test” has worked perfectly in this case.
Read an excerpt from The Godfather of Kathmandu, and learn more about the book and author at John Burdett's website.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue