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Organ trafficking, prostitution, and drugs in the underbelly of Asian society

A review of Vulture Peak: A Royal Thai Detective Novel, by John Burdett

@@@ (3 out of 5)

When I read John Burdett’s first novel, Bangkok 8, I was hooked, and I couldn’t wait to learn more about its fascinating protagonist, the incorruptible Thai homicide detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Bangkok 8 offered up a feast of intimate knowledge about Buddhism as practiced in Thailand, the local brand of animist superstitions, and the corruption that pervades every nook and cranny of Thai society, all revealed in the context of a spectacular murder mystery. In three subsequent novels featuring the detective — Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts, and The Godfather of Katmandu — Burdett gradually shifted the emphasis of his writing from Sonchai Jitpleecheep’s exotic inner dialogue to the grisly details of the homicide case at hand. In Vulture Peak, the fifth novel in the Royal Thai Detective Series, Burdett has gone the distance. The local color of Thailand’s red-light districts is still there, and the plot is, if anything, even more convoluted, but the detective has grown tired and his worldview is verging on cynicism. The result is less than fully satisfying.

Vulture Peak — the place, not the title — is the palatial hilltop home outside Phuket on the Thai coast where three bodies have been discovered, so badly mutilated that their gender can’t be determined at first. Heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, genitals, face have all been surgically removed, the bodies left on an oversized bed in the deserted home. Detective Jitpleecheep is ordered by his boss, the famously corrupt policeman, Colonel Vikorn, to learn the identity of the murderer. If the detective solves the case, the colonel can take credit and boost his campaign for Governor of Bangkok — a campaign no one would ever have expected him to undertake. Here is the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma, and Jitpleecheep must use all his wile and intuition to unravel the threads of the case.

As the detective sets out with his katoey (transgender) assistant, mystery piles on mystery. Why is Colonel Vikorn running for public office when he is already making billions from the drug trade? Who owns the house on Vulture Peak, and what is it used for? Is the colonel’s bitter rival, General Zinna, involved in organ trafficking? Does he own the house? As new characters crowd onto the scene, the plot grows ever more intricate. To understand what’s going on, you’ll have to read almost to the very end of the book.

Don’t get the impression from anything I’ve written above that Vulture Peak doesn’t erupt in startling prose from time to time. Here, for example, Burdett comments on Christianity (with apologies to you, Dear Reader, if you’re a believer): “Of the world’s three universal religions, one is based on a profound insight into human psychology and one is based on a profound insight into the kind of social structure that is necessary for people to live in peace and harmony . . . The former is Buddhism, and the latter is Islam. The other world religion is an insane collection of primitive magic and mumbo-jumbo, with cadavers resurrecting and walking around with holes in them, lepers suddenly healing and the blind suddenly seeing, virgins giving birth and snakes that talk.”

And again, commenting on Western civilization: “The discovery of nirvana is the psychological equivalent of the invention of zero but vastly more important. Think of where mathematics was before zero, and you have the level of mental development of the West: good/bad, right/left, profit/loss, heaven/hell, us/them, me/you. It’s like counting with Roman numerals.”

John Burdett was born in the UK, became a lawyer there, spent a dozen years practicing in Hong Kong, then left the law to write crime novels. He now divides his time between Thailand and France.

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Joseph Wambaugh’s latest paints Los Angeles in many clashing colors

A review of Harbor Nocturne, by Joseph Wambaugh

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

When you read Joseph Wambaugh on the endlessly diverse “coppers” of the LAPD or the equally colorful denizens of their turf, you know you’ve met the truth. Listen as he describes three of Hollywood’s zoned-out derelicts:

“Their shirts and trousers were so stained and filthy they’d lost their color and seemed to sprout from them like fungus. Two had splotchy skin with open sores, and there were not twenty teeth among them. As younger transients, they’d covered more territory than Lewis and Clark, but as they got older they’d begun to vaporize into spectres that nobody really saw until they spoke. The unholy ghosts of Hollywood Boulevard.”

No, the world of Joseph Wambaugh and his creations who people the Hollywood police station isn’t pretty. It’s wild, gritty, funny, outrageous, and above all endlessly surprising. Wambaugh has walked these streets. He knows whereof he writes.

The harbor of the title is the shore of San Pedro, a portion of the Port of Los Angeles. Two of the town’s younger residents, Dino Babich, a longshoreman, and his childhood buddy Hector Cozzo, reflect the variously Croatian and Italian history of the place, and their renewed relationship becomes a central factor in the plot.

The story Wambaugh tells revolves around human trafficking and prostitution — and the unsavory people who profit from it. The plot works well and offers up tension and surprises to the end. However, Harbor Nocturne is much less a novel of suspense than it is a character study of the Los Angeles Police Department, as embodied in the coppers of Hollywood Station. If there is an overarching theme to this novel, it’s the extraordinary diversity of Los Angeles today, where 200 languages are spoken. The book features characters of Mexican, Serbian, Italian, Croatian, Korean, Russian, Japanese, African, and Jewish as well as plain old white-bread European descent.

Harbor Nocturne is the fifth and most recent novel in Wambaugh’s Hollywood Station cycle, which began in 2006. Like its predecessors, Harbor Nocturne takes us inside the station and inside the heads of the cops who staff its evening and early-morning “midwatch.” Familiar characters from the earlier novels feature prominently here: the sun-bleached surfer cops “Flotsam and Jetsam”; aspiring actor “Hollywood Nate” Weiss; and young Britney Small, who earned the respect of the “OGs” — the Old Guys of the station — by shooting a violent offender to death. and wishing she’d gained it some other way.

Wambaugh, now 75, is the author of 20 previous books, 14 of them novels. From his very first novel, The New Centurions, in 1971, Wambaugh has been winning acclaim and selling books about the police in very large quantities. The man knows how to write!

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