Many trace the modern crime thriller back to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. A still more venerable ancestor would be Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In both cases literary giants used acts of aggravated homicide to illustrate the most agonising dilemmas of their day. In both cases the moral crises were the product of profound revolutions of thought, which would soon lead to revolutions of blood. Less than thirty years after Crime and Punishment the Bolsheviks were slaughtering the Russian royal family and any aristocrat they could lay their hands on. Forty years after Macbeth Cromwell beheaded Charles I and Britain became a republic.
Looked at in this way, the modern thriller, whether in novel or movie form, looks like a trivialisation of the archetype, with its monotonous orgy of blood, rage and gore underpinned by nothing beyond the commercial need to extract one more cheap thrill from a tired genre. But need it be so? After all, has there ever been a more fragmented age than ours, or one where conventional morality has so broken down that no one is quite sure of what it consists, or if it exists at all outside of family entertainment? Raskolnikov would have understood perfectly the psychology of a suicide bomber. Macbeth’s ambition hardly differs in quality or type from that of Sadam Hussein or Pol Pot.
When I started to write a yarn about a Eurasian Bangkok detective I knew I had to learn something about Buddhism. Contrary to its public face, Buddhism is the most radical science of the mind. One is urged to proceed gradually, because what lies in store is an internal revolution. The world ceases to look the same: it looks realer. And a big part of that reality lies in accepting full responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts and words, not merely for this lifetime, but for hundreds to come: like it or not, we are the chaos we see when we turn on the evening news; the frontier between one’s self and the world is illusory. Sonchai does all he can to follow the Buddha’s guidance, always hoping to achieve that warm feeling we get when we think we’re doing good. Invariably his nemesis, the ultra pragmatic Colonel Vikorn, rubs his nose in the grim truth: spiritual vanity has no place in law enforcement. If you want to do good, you must also do bad, that’s the way the world has been set up, like a law of Physics. If you happen to be a monk manqué like Sonchai, you must resign yourself to the pain that goes with the privilege of partial enlightenment.
When I wrote Bangkok 8, the first in the series, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was not at all sure the form could carry this kind of metaphysical baggage, but I didn’t seem able to do anything about it. I realised the modern thriller is a kind of moral amputee, where Hannibal the Cannibal and his spin offs are allowed to turn their extreme crimes into glamour and exoticum. I wondered: have we really degenerated so far we daren’t even look at the consequences? Then I remembered Raskolnikov and Macbeth, and the agonies they went through. Of course the crime thriller is open-ended enough to carry that weight. It may be all we have with which to explore the zeitgeist.
John Burdett, Bangkok, December 2009.
John Burdett’s fourth Sonchai Jeetplecheep novel “The Godfather of Kathmandu” is published this month (Transworld, £12.99)