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.