In recent years, many mystery novels have become platforms for social analysis. There is something about the form that lends itself to the task, whether it's the requirement that all mysteries contain some form of good vs. evil, or the close character studies afforded by the tradition.
While some mystery writers have always done this on a micro level (think Patricia Highsmith's ongoing fascination with the role of the outsider in her work), only recently have we seen a spate of books that use the mystery novel framework to reflect on a society as a whole. John Burdett's Bangkok 8 is like a supercharged example of the phenomenon.
Burdett continually examines the differences between Asian and Western culture. He illustrates some of these differences with his two protagonists, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a Thai detective, and Kimberley Jones, an American FBI agent, who are assigned to work together to discover the killer of a U.S. Marine in Bangkok. But Burdett goes much further than just showing us their different approaches (Jones' reliance on hard facts; Sonchai's reliance on his intuition).
In Sonchai, Burdett has given us a character who thinks really hard about these differences. As a man of mixed race (he has a Thai mother and an unknown U.S. Vietnam-era serviceman father), Sonchai is uniquely situated to provide ongoing analysis and commentary. And Burdett doesn't hesitate to pull the puppeteer's strings; toward the end of the book he even has Sonchai reading a book about the how the West doesn't understand Thailand. He treats us to quotes from that book, in case we haven't gotten his point.
Another theme of the book is the sex trade in Thailand (which Sonchai, as the son of a former prostitute, has a unique perspective on) and more specifically, the booming Thai industry in gender reassignment surgery, which is much cheaper and less regulated than what is available in Western nations. Burdett again provides an East vs. West analysis of people's attitudes toward sex and gender that (of course) ends up relating back to the original murder.
This book is a lot of work -- it's not a mindless escapist sort of mystery, but one you can sink your teeth into, if you like this kind of thing. I do, sometimes, and felt (despite my complaints about its length) that it was a really good read.
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.