Author: John Burdett

Knopf, 2010

Filed under: Mystery

It’s often a good thing for a novel to have strong characters with clear motivations, whose moods and feelings you can sense as you read. Except, of course, if the main character wants to be in a different kind of novel.

The Godfather of Kathmandu should be a mystery. It’s about a detective in the Thai Police—the awesomely named Sonchai Jitpleecheep—and it opens with a case for Sonchai to solve, a case he describes as “a to-die-for little murder.”

Before he can get started on the case, though, Sonchai gets sidetracked by a $40 million heroin deal in which he becomes involved on behalf of his boss: police chief and heroin kingpin Colonel Vikorn. Sonchai loves the idea of being a “consigliere” (just like in the movie The Godfather) and to set up the deal he travels to Kathmandu, Nepal (thus the title).

Like Burdett’s previous Sonchai mysteries, Godfather uses its setting to great effect. Thailand, and Nepal for that matter, are fascinating places in which to have a mystery, and Burdett highlights the differences between Western and Eastern psychology with an insight that’s both culturally acute and delightfully gleeful.

Unfortunately, you can sense Sonchai’s apathy toward the case he’s assigned (you know, the actual plot of the novel), and so none of the author’s spirit translates to the mystery itself.

When Sonchai travels to Kathmandu to negotiate the massive heroin deal, he meets a Tibetan Buddhist named Tietsin, who teaches him a secret Buddhist mantra that might destroy him.

Almost everything in this narrative thread is interesting: Tietsin; the mantra; Sonchai’s thoughts about Buddhism; the differences between Nepal and Thailand, and between those two countries and Western civilization. And the fact that Tietsin wants the $40 million in order to invade China and take back Tibet is very interesting.

But the drug deal itself is pretty boring. That’s unfortunate, because Sonchai finds it fascinating. By contrast, he finds the case he’s assigned to—a farang filmmaker is found killed in a bizarre and gruesome way—utterly, utterly dull (I found it quite compelling for the record, but I’m only the reader).

Sonchai never cares a whit about the farang case, he drags his feet on it, and laments the fact that, because he’s such a good detective, it won’t even be a challenge. Basically he takes all the fun out of what could be a riveting murder mystery, and tries to put it into the execution of a drug deal, which could be handled by a well-trained monkey.

Here’s how Sonchai describes the mystery:

I’m afraid there is not much to do but sigh. I could, of course, have the bloodstains … tested … but I don’t really have the time.

Compare that to how he feels about the drug deal:

I’ve been up all night. I’ve vomited in the sink twice already and it’s only six in the morning.

He can’t even make it to the toilet! O, that it were so enthralling to read!

Deviously, Sonchai even hides the complexity and heft of the farang case from us readers for much of the book. Eventually, he sinks his teeth into it—and reveals that it is, indeed, quite an interesting little murder—but even then he squeezes it between other sections, complaining all the while. The reading experience becomes a fight with Sonchai, and that takes the novel from a gripping thrill-ride to a confusing mishmash.

It’s especially a shame because all the other elements of the story are outstanding. Burdett’s characters are great fun, even if they are on the cartoonish side. I especially liked Tietsin—it’s a shame that he disappears for nearly the entire novel, and that his plan to invade China is eventually reduced to a footnote.

The prose is also quite good, such as these opening lines:

Ours is an age of enforced psychosis. I’ll forgive yours, farang, if you’ll forgive mine—but let’s talk about it later.

The Thai culture that pervades the novel is perhaps the most enjoyable part. Burdett relishes every facet of luck systems, superstitions, rituals, and customs. He loves every ladyboy and crooked cop, and he wants you to love them, too.

That kind of energy is infectious and fun, but it makes the humdrum attitude toward the mystery all the more confusing and sour.

Godfather is worth reading for the Thailand setting and Burdett’s insight into Buddhism and eastern thought. But if you’d prefer a satisfying mystery, try one of Burdett’s earlier Bangkok novels instead.

Similar books: Ilustrado, by Miguel Syjuco, for another writer who wants to introduce you to the country he loves.

Also check out the other books in Burdett‘s Bangkok series. All are great books about Thailand, and most are better mysteries than this one.