Will Leitch is one of my favorite writers. He covers sports in word form and movies on the Grierson & Leitch podcast. All year long, he has grappled with is love for the Wes Anderson movie Isle of Dogs, which is set in Japan and has many references to famed director Akira Kurosawa but whose characters are voiced mostly by white people. The movie has been deemed (accurately in my estimation) to be culturally appropriated.
I’m not one for winning “Who’s the most woke white person?” contests. Nobody wins and it’s usually non-white folk who end up losing again at the hands of people who call themselves allies. So I’m not going to judge Will too hard for liking the movie considering how much I like this book (and its prequel).
John Burdett is a Brit. His perspective is British. His view of the east, no matter how informed and nuanced, is from the western gaze. His characterization of Thai folk and culture, no matter how well done, is appropriation at the highest level. 90% of the time, I wouldn’t bother with a book like this.
And I probably shouldn’t. But so help me, I do. Because this is the second book in the series and not only is it almost as good as the first, it’s genuinely unique among most of the books I read. Burdett captures the weird, rambling voice of Sonchai Jiptlecheep, a devoutly Buddhist biracial Bangkok police detective, in a fascinating way. As he meanders his way through the streets of Bangkok, the rural areas of Thailand and other locales in search of the perpetrator of a bizarre murder, while musing about Buddhism, sex, and culture along the way, I find myself being more and more drawn in. This isn’t the first book to use its city location as a character but it does so in a way that makes the atmosphere feel lived in, not stuffy and in need of salvation like say, Gotham City or even fictional portrayals of New York.
I wish this series was written by a Thai person. It’s disappointing that it’s not. You shouldn’t have your view of another culture filtered through the lens of someone not of said culture. I take all of Burdett’s rumination on Thailand and its people with a grain of salt. But I take them anyway. Because his books are damn good.