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On the Robot Zombies of Angkor Wat in John Burdett’s ‘The Bangkok Asset’

The sixth novel in John Burdett's Bangkok detective series is a dispiriting, dismaying mess. Is there still hope for recovery or is the series in a death spiral?

It’s a holiday in Cambodia

Where you’ll do what you’re told

A holiday in Cambodia

Where the slums got so much soul

— The Dead Kennedys

I’ve been a fan of John Burdett’s Bangkok detective novels ever since I idly picked up Bangkok Haunts (2007) in the city of the title about a decade ago. The paperback languished on my shelf in Singapore for a few weeks before I finally cracked it open. Mesmerized, I read it in a single marathon sitting.

Here was a Southeast Asian noir that recalled the best of the violent tendencies of Dashiell Hammett and the whiskey-gum-shoe of Raymond Chandler. The dark world was marinated in the lurid Technicolor of Bangkok’s seamy nightlife while injecting a healthy dose of local black magic and a deep cynicism about the every-day-is-brighter-than-the-next narrative of corporate consumerism that is slowly if inexorably insinuating itself across the globe. The author was able to deftly juggle these elements while still writing a novel with a propulsive story, a roller-coaster plot, and characters that popped off the page. I wanted more.

Turns out the novel was the third in what was an informal trilogy that began with Bangkok 8 (2003), followed by Bangkok Tattoo (2005). These novels were just as vibrant as the first I’d read. I began to recommend Burdett to friends. Friends familiar with Thailand agreed that he managed to capture a certain je ne sais quoi that is largely missing from most Western accounts of the country.

Other than the setting, the common element in each book is Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Eurasian cop with a foot in both the Occident and the Orient. He’s got the honor to resist the Eastern corruption all around him while maintaining an Asian perspective on morality that is anathema in the West. Both Buddhist and gunslinger, and a devoted weed smoker, Jitpleecheep’s first person narration grounded the novels in with a sympathetic voice, so no matter how far out the story went, readers had a guiding hand. And the stories went far, or perhaps deep, into Thai mysticism as much as degraded crime.

For me, the novels were revelatory. They demonstrated a way to revitalize the hard-boiled genre, to stretch the parameters of the story to include elements that enhance the dark cynicism of noir with exotic-erotic elements usually found in other genres. They inspired me to write my own hard-boiled novels in a similar vein, set in 1890s Singapore and Malaya. More than a fan, I’m an acolyte.

But things started to slip. The Godfather of Kathmandu (2010) had all the elements of the first three books, but there were signs of stress. The formula was wearing thin, so the action was partly moved to Nepal. There were also some cartoonish descriptions that indicated the author may be less interested in the real world than what happens in his own mind. To wit:

Army trucks full of soldiers in camouflage fatigues start appearing parked on the hard shoulders; then motorbike squads come close to our motorbike escort […]; then, about three miles from the army compound, tanks start to line the road, parked perpendicular to the turnpike with their guns ambiguously raised. […] By the time we get to the threshold of army land proper, the tanks are lined up tread to caterpillar tread, producing a funnel-like effect […].

This is a cool visual, with the tanks becoming more close and compressed as the car moves down the motorway; there’s a sense not only of acceleration but of fractal-like density accruing in a hallucinogenic, caterpillar-like way.

Unfortunately, this line-up of tanks wouldn’t happen in the real world. Think of the logistics, time, expense, and rehearsal required to assemble such a tunnel of motorized armor. This construction exists as a motion graphic, a special effect. As such it robs the scene, in which Jitpleecheep and his boss are being placed in danger, of its emotional stakes. It’s what the entertainment industry calls a “dogs-balls” moment (why does a dog lick his balls? Because he can).

Nonetheless, in the fourth book the characters were sharp, the story still had all the vibrancy of the predecessors and I still wanted more.

Unfortunately, the self-indulgent tendencies became more frequent in the subsequent books. Now with the sixth novel to feature Jitpleecheep, The Bangkok Asset, the author’s navel-gazing and ball licking has completely submerged the elements that made the first three novels so thoroughly remarkable.

Robot Zombies of Angkor Wat

The latest story is a sad mash-up of existing sources, mostly films. The first is a picture from 1936 titled Revolt of the Zombies (a fun remix of the soundtrack can be found on Youtube), in which the evil count Count Mazovia has discovered an ancient Khmer magic formula that he uses to create an army of killer zombies in the ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Updating this story 60 years later was the 1990 horror thriller Jacob’s Ladder, in which a secret Army program during the American War in Vietnam used psychotropic drugs to increase the aggressive behavior of troops, which was followed by the cartoonish 1992 Universal Soldier, in which beef-cakes Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren are soldiers who kill each other in Vietnam only to be resuscitated later by a secret Army program used to create super cyborg soldiers for counter-terrorism assignments.

In Burdett’s latest novel, the CIA is funding research by an eccentric British genius and a semi-rogue CIA agent who makes super soldiers from the offspring of Vietnam vets by using a combination of LSD and Khmer mysticism in the ruins of Angkor Wat. These soldiers are later enhanced with cyborg capabilities for counter-terrorism and crowd control. One of them, the eponymous Asset, is brought to Bangkok, where he goes on a killing rampage that forcefully, one could say inevitably, draws in Detective Jitpleecheep.

Is the author aware of the B-movies from which his story is so closely derived? He doesn’t mention them in his book, though does he acknowledges his debt to other political brainwash thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

As far as plot, the story loosely follows the standard detective novel paradigm of crime-investigation-denouement, but Burdett has to go to such lengths to inject some originality into the reheated material that the detective story is quickly subsumed under an avalanche of tech gadgetry and a disproportionate amount of portentous philosophical gobbledegook.

Unfortunately, our detective is left bumbling around, a disorientated spectator to the author’s grandiose comic book. He mostly goes where he’s told and once there gets long lectures from the characters he meets. The hard action man with a wry sense of Buddhist justice that we’ve seen in the previous novels is sorely missed here.

Also missed are the descriptions of the mean streets of Bangkok, the neon psychedelic luridness of Thai culture, the nuanced descriptions of underground economies… all the exotic-erotic stage dressing and staggering purple prose that gave the previous novels so much sparkling depth are here shoveled aside to make way for the Universal Soldier.

That’s not to say that some scenes don’t leap off the page. The man can still write. There’s a Muay Thai boxing scene is so well written that it recalls the vim and verve of the previous books, but these moments are few and far between and mostly serve to remind us what we have lost. Indeed, The Bangkok Asset suffers from so much overstuffing and the seasoned author makes so many blunders that I have no choice but to roll out the hit list:

Plot holes. The story posits not one but two secret camps filled with Americans and their offspring hidden in the Cambodian jungle since the end of the American War in Vietnam. Incredibly, the issue of how these camps were left unmolested during Pol Pot’s ruthless Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled from 1975 to 1979 and managed in that short time to murder fully a third of Cambodia’s population, is never explained. And what of the Communist Vietnamese Army who invaded in 1979 and occupied the country until 1991 to restore some sort of order while fighting a guerilla war against scattered Khmer Rouge remnants in the backcountry? Were the Communists just, like, okay with a CIA-funded camp at Angkor Wat?

Surely the reader deserves to know how the camps survived both the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese occupation. Nothing doing. When one character protests that the Khmer Rouge were active in Angkor Wat, we’re simply told that the camp “had to move on”. How and to where? Not only does Burdett not provide an explanation, but he acknowledges the holes with a shrug when Jitpleecheep says “It seems he [bad guy number one] survived Pol Pot’s brutal regime, but he does not explain how.” Such an arrogant solution to a plot hole so large is tantamount to telling the reader to go screw himself.

Shoddy construction. Toward the very end, we’re given a revelation. The Universal Soldier removes his mask to reveal that his face is a perfect match for that of his British maker. Jitpleecheep is shocked! The Universal Soldier admits that he has never removed his mask before, that only his maker, himself, and now Jitpleecheep, are privy to this secret. Considering that his followers call him the Messiah, this third act discovery should have a major impact on the story. Again, nothing doing.

Immediately after the mask comes off and the secret is revealed, another character enters the room and has no reaction whatsoever. He doesn’t even acknowledge that the Universal Soldier’s face is now completely different. How can this be? After this moment, this deep secret is simply never mentioned again. There is a vague reference here to an over-wrought Jesus parallel, but even if such a strained metaphor is applied, why wouldn’t other characters in the book react with the same shock as Jitpleecheep? Why is the revelation dropped so quickly? If a denouement has no point it merely becomes a cheap thrill, like a jump-scare in B-horror films.

Techno-babble and Zen Koans

By importing all this pseudo-Christian gunk to sheath the limpness of his sci-fi fantasy, Burdett erases any of the emotional stakes of the story.

Repetitive and shallow motivation explanations. We are told time and again, by nearly every character in the book other than Jitpleecheep, that the human population will soon exceed earth’s capacity and there will be bloody riots as the sweltering masses clamber for dwindling resources. Governments want supercops to suppress these masses. Such an explanation is fine, but reading it over and over begins to suggest that there’s little behind it. If we have all this wizard technology available, why wouldn’t governments find a more practical use for it? Why not the clean and green world of the Star Trek franchise, where technology serves the greater good, instead of the lugubriousness of the Universal Soldier franchise? Cynicism is part of the noir genre, but if it lapses into dreariness it suggests the creator has lost control of his production.

Artificial pearls of wisdom. Burdett is fond of creating little nuggets of wisdom, somewhat like Zen koans, that cause the reader to pause and rethink some basic notion of reality. At their best, these instances demonstrate the wide gap between Occidental and Oriental thinking. For example, we are given this play on Descartes: “It would have been smarter to say, I think therefore I am not, since honest thought destroys identity.” That’s a nifty encapsulation of Buddhist thought as an inversion of an essential Western notion.

Unfortunately, the techno-babble of much of the subject matter has pushed Burdett out of his comfort zone. For example, we’re twice told a variation of “Like any applied science, once it’s seen to work it can’t be stopped.” Well, that depends on many factors, including cost, efficiency, availability, etc. It also depends on disruption: it’s the lesson of Betamax versus VHS. The problem with Zen koans is that once you fracture them, they disintegrate completely, and there are far too many fractured koans here.

Lack of consistency. We’re repeatedly told that the Universal Soldier is one of a kind, which is why so many governments are interested in him (Americans, Chinese, Russians; the Thais are mostly middlemen) and why his link to Jitpleecheep is so extraordinary. They share a father which means that Jitpleecheep has the same genes as the Universal Soldier; these are super genes that allowed him to survive the jungle training while all the other cyborgs perished, so Jitpleecheep is more… durable, I guess… than the average human (so the Y chromosome is important here? Specifics are left out).

Then we’re told that actually there are many, many more of these super soldiers out there. They even have conventions where they play chess! That’s cute, but it totally undercuts any of the stakes raised in the first two acts of the story. If there are more than one of these guys out there, what makes this one so much more special than the rest? If a prototype gets burned, you build more. One senses an author painting himself into a corner then coming up with a quick and dirty solution that destroys the structure of the plot.

On the other side of the painted room is the mysterious father figure. Burdett goes to great lengths to rewrite his backstory from previous novels to better conform to this one, so we should expect a major denouement when son confronts father. We are wrong. When we first meet dad he’s in a coma with his face bandaged. When we next meet him, he’s in a coma due to excessive LSD use. He never wakes up. So much for all that.

Vague technology and rules. Burdett’s cyborgs are never well defined. They are a product of psychological programming using chemicals and Khmer sorcery as well as hardware upgrades and one assumes genetic manipulation so they are stronger, smarter, faster, etc, than regular humans. But regular folks can also get upgrades, so, for example, a blind woman gets powers of echolocation. But she doesn’t require the intense psychological training of other cyborgs. Why not? Who knows? We’re never told. Accept it or don’t.

How do these upgrades actually function? The author’s only explanation is cringe worthy. These human upgrades are, you see, “Apps” (yes, with the capital A). One character mentions without a trace of irony that she’s had the “sex App” implanted. What can that mean? Who would devise such technology? How does it help in urban warfare? By the way, Putin is also an upgraded human, but we’re not told in what way. One would hope that all this is some sort of satire on Western technology, but alas the tone is too earnest to allow for satire, except of the unintentional variety.

Burdett doesn’t call his upgraded humans “cyborgs” (too 1990s?) but instead uses the word “transhumans”. I guess “metahuman” was out because DC Comics has already taken it and “mutant” is what X-Men are. In the book, there are also “humanzees” who are more cyborg than the Universal Solider but have less of or more of… something. I don’t know, they’re just somehow different. It’s not very clear. I think that “robot zombie” would have been a cool moniker, but I guess I’ll have to write my own sci-fi comic book about that.

Pomposity. Burdett seems aware that his sci-fi is thin bread, so to disguise this, he spreads a thick dollop of philosophical schmear over the whole thing. This is supposed to elevate the material, but instead it just adds further distractions. There are incessant bite-sized lectures that eventually start to grind readers down. At a murder scene, the killer uses music by the Renaissance composer Gesualdo as part of his tableau, which prompts this Tweet-like explanation: “the off-key music he produced was a direct expression of his spiritual death, his private hell.” That sounds smart, but it doesn’t carry any weight without adding digressive explanations that would detract even further from the scene. Worse, Burdett jumps through a hoop to explain how a Bangkok detective would come to express such a thought.

Or again, the background of the whole cyborg adventure is tossed off in a couple of lines that would require several doctoral theses to make sense: “Culturally and psychologically the global situation is almost identical to that of Palestine and the eastern Mediterranean two thousand years ago under the Romans. […] The search for meaning was universal and a powerful political force in itself.” If you say so. The fact that these words come from a morally bankrupt CIA agent and not a sophomore philosophy major is strange, but by this point it should be clear that the author is willing to use his characters as mouthpieces for his own highfalutin ramblings.

All this grandstanding utterly drains the story of color. The Universal Soldier fancies himself the return of Jesus Christ, which prompts a thumbnail lecture about The Gospel of Judas, which is followed by this scintillating set-piece of Southeast Asian noir action:

French is basically Italian with a truckload of butter and cream thrown at it. Of course, the word Italian covers a thousand dishes. I don’t mind the poverty cuisines of Sicily and the south, but it doesn’t have the finesse or variety of the north. No, it’s got to be Tuscan or Piemonte. […] Shall I tell you what you are thinking? You are thinking my, my, what breadth of education and culture they gave him, this Asset? Am I right?

That the speaker of these lines considers himself the Second Coming apparently means that the techno-apocalypse will mostly consist of egotistical, dull and somewhat ditzy dinner dates. Jitpleecheep could dispatch him with a simple Look, Asset, you’re a nice guy and last night was fun but I really don’t think we should see each other anymore.

The problem with this grandiosity is that one can’t have the detective kill the Messiah, no matter how tedious he may be. So by importing all this pseudo-Christian gunk to sheath the limpness of his sci-fi fantasy, Burdett erases any of the emotional stakes of the story. There is no crime to be solved, no mystery or suspense; there is no father figure to confront, no catharsis. Nothing is at stake because the Second Coming already came. He’s kind of a jerk but you can’t shoot him. At the end, Jitpleecheep decides to slink off and get stoned and forget about the whole thing. After finishing the book, I did, too.

Holiday in Cambodia

Reality is far scarier than fiction. Scientists are now warning that we are on the verge of entering a post-antibiotic age. After decades of hubristic overuse of antibiotics, the microbes have evolved evasive immunity to our drugs. Diseases such as gonorrhea that have for decades been a mere annoyance may soon be untreatable. The bacteria are winning. In such a world, elective surgery may become a thing of the past. Who would risk painful if not fatal infection just to get fuller lips, let alone brain implants? So much for Burdett’s “sex App”. There will be no cyborg Messiah to punish and save us. The entire sci-fi fantasy premise of Burdett’s story disintegrates in the face of the true horrors of our age.

In Thailand, politics are stranger than fiction. Since the coup of 2006, the country has veered from one ruling faction to another, with the recent military coup of 2014 putting a pause on the seesaw at the cost of escalating human rights violations. The past decade has seen chaotic often violent protests as well as sporadic bomb attacks often related to the ongoing civil conflict in the south. Bangkok itself is a major hub of human, drugs, weapons, and exotic species trafficking. Indeed, there’s plenty of material here for 50 more noir novels.

Maybe because of Thailand’s notoriously draconian lèse-majesté laws and the severe crackdown by the ruling military junta, Burdett felt he had no choice but to concoct this comic plot which shifts attention almost completely from issues that pertain to modern Thailand (he didn’t reply to a request for an interview), but even if this is true, it doesn’t excuse the other serious problems with the book.

It almost seems like the manuscript wasn’t written as a Jitpleecheep novel in the first place and perhaps from contract obligations Burdett grafted his detective into the story. Or perhaps the author is getting bored with his creation? OK, fair play, but end the thing gracefully: this the world he created is not how we want to be remembered. If Burdett is getting too big for his britches and ignoring his editors, then at least there”s hope someone can still reign him in. If he’s just getting lazy and arrogant, then he can “shit and fall back in it”, as my Bronx-born mom would say.

There’s one thing that I learned from reading this book. I now understand how Star Wars fans can feel so disappointed, dismayed and depressed by the second trilogy.

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