series first burst upon the crime reading world in 2003 with the
Bangkok 8. The
Godfather of Kathmandu,is
now published in the UK (28 January 2010, Bantam Press, Transworld,
£12.99).This remarkable quartet of crime novels, in which
comes face to face with the spiritual approach of the East, has won
plaudits. In The
Kathmandu Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep investigates the horrific
murder of a rich American, is caught between his boss Vikorn and
enemy General Zinna, and
at a time of personal grief for himself, by the Buddhist path to
offered by a Tibetan lama in Kathmandu.
Recommending Bangkok 8
highly in Shots Magazine, Ali
Karim wrote: ‘It does really make you
take a long deep breath, as its story is so fresh.’ Having
Godfather of Kathmandu, I agree. I was left breathless,
although I managed to recover in time when I was offered the privilege
interviewing its author. An
unforgettable novel – go for it!
Jitpleecheep, who is the driving force of these novels, is memorable
more than his powers of detection. He’s half-Asian, half
Westerner, he treads
the thin line between the law and crime with dexterity and juggles his
path with his spiritual Buddhist journey to the Far Shore. Was his original
conception in your mind solely as a detective, from which his character
developed, or did you plan him as such a divided character at his
I did not plan him at all. I think his Eurasian genes plus his mastery
the cultures of both East and West make him vulnerable to a kind of
schizophrenia. It is not so much that he does not know who he is, but
could be almost anyone, depending on what language and culture he
happens to be
in at any particular moment.
Q. The most striking
aspect of this novel for me is the way you have
presented Thai life as an overall picture, so that its crime, sex and
aspects become an accepted part of everyday life, rather than separated
of an underworld. You live in Bangkok, so did the novels
from your life there, or did you move there after your novels and
I wanted to live in Thailand
from the first visit in 1986. This was purely a consequence of Thai
however, since I knew almost nothing about the country until I came to
here in 2001. I had not lived full-time in a developing country before.
no idea the extent to which the economy of the poor blends with the
in a land without social security. Also, the importance of the black
much more obvious in a developing country. In fact, a huge proportion
funds sloshing around the world derive from the illegal drug industry,
the West this reality is hardly referred to. If estimates are correct
third of the world’s wealth is black money, then in reality
there is hardly a
large building project on earth that does not make use of funds which
tainted to some extent.
given Sonchai a Western absentee father, and a Thai
upbringing with his prostitute mother. Over the years Sonchai has
Western side, both in his likes (he’s an American
thriller-buff, for example)
and in his career (such as his relationship with Kimberley Jones). Tietsin,
is the ‘Godfather’ of Kathmandu.
Did you plan it this way
because it opened up opportunities for Sonchai to see Asian life both
outsider and as a native, or because it enabled Sonchai to bridge the
between West and East for your readers?
From the start Sonchai has been sincere and even zealous about his
Buddhism. Although he looks to the West for cultural entertainment, he
looks East when it comes to matters of the sprit. However, as a
Eurasian who surfs the Net, he cannot help noticing that there is an
alternative form of Buddhism out there. He was brought up in the
tradition, which is roughly the equivalent to the orthodox Christian
that it claims to be the ‘original’ teaching.
Tibetan Buddhism, on the other
hand, derives from the highly developed form of Buddhism called
fled India during the Mogul invasion and continued its
development in the
monasteries of Tibet. Sonchai, a natural intellectual, is intrigued
and seduced. All of
a sudden he is the ignorant Westerner asking naïve questions
Q. Is there a sharp
divide between the ex-pat and the Thai ways of
living in Bangkok? If so, do you
feel rather like Sonchai yourself?
There are huge cultural divides. Most Southeast Asians in my
experience are secure in their very long traditions and although they
develop Western tastes, these tend to be superficial. The
particular, tend to be immigrants from the Northeast with their own
which differs from standard Thai in both language and tradition, so in
Bangkok is largely a city of immigrants. If you add in the Moslems, the
the Hindus and the Chinese, almost everyone is a kind of ex-pat. For
have never found a taxi driver who was brought up in Bangkok.
Q. The central
murder-victim, the American, dies horrifically in this
novel by a means that springs from the storyline. Your novels all seem
a spectacular means of death. Is this an aspect that intrigues you? It
certainly does the reader.
I think a thriller writer comes to view his corpses in a similar
way to a forensic scientist. While a lay person may be horrified by the
your author is professionally intrigued and wants to know how the heck
get out of the trap he has set for himself: I never plan my books.
Q. ‘If I
know I’m crazy, does that mean I’m not?’
Sonchai sets himself
some glorious philosophical
and his overall way of meditation keeps your text alive and bubbling.
first novel was introduced by one reviewer as by ‘a wonderful
read even the first page of The Godfather of Kathmandu no one could doubt
Have you always wanted to write, or was it your law career that sparked
wish to write crime fiction. And why crime fiction in particular?
I always wanted to write. My first writing assignment at school
took place when I was six years old. Everyone else in the class wrote
sentences. I went on and on and had to be stopped by the teacher. When
graduated with a degree in English and American literature, however, I
there was no work. The problem of providing for myself took precedence
trying to write, so I read law. When I finally had sufficient dough to
law, I had developed enough commercial nous to think about my target
who buys what kind of books? I remembered that as a stressed-out lawyer
only novels my overworked attention span could tolerate were thrillers.
figured that was probably true of a lot of people in the 1990s, so I
that form. I had acquired quite a good grasp of the police practice by
even though I only had a few criminal cases in my career.
Q. You have created
some splendid characters in this novel on both
sides of the line between law and crime. Did they all develop from your
imagination after your research of the Thai scene, particularly the
sex worlds, or from people you met, or are they entirely figments of
The characters themselves tend to use real people as starting
points, which are by no means exclusively Thai. The Thai-Chinese
for example, was inspired by a Hong Kong Chinese woman I once worked
with as a
lawyer in Hong
long before I came to live in Thailand.
Q. I have read that
you worked in Hong Kong in the legal profession
for some years, and Hong Kong immediately
summons up a stereotype picture of ‘business, business,
business’. Does Hong Kong life also have a deeper dimension
quite apart from
the ‘business’ element, or were you attracted to
write about Thailand, not Hong
Kong, because it is so different?
Hong Kong differs from Thailand
both in reality and in the popular imagination because Hong Kong has such a strong
‘British’ side to it, even today. Thailand
has never been colonised and has held onto its very strong, centralised
through both British and Japanese colonisation of the surrounding
Therefore the image of the ‘exotic East’ is much
more clearly defined when one
writes about Bangkok as compared with Hong Kong. On the other hand, Hong Kong does have a deeper, and less penetrable,
aspect. Hong Kong Chinese
tend to have kept their Confucian traditions and I have called on these
somewhat in building the Chinese characters in Godfather.
Q. According to
Wikipedia, you would like to move beyond the crime
field once the Bangkok series is
this so, or have you not yet decided where the writing path will lead
seems to me that in The Godfather of Kathmandu you are already
boundaries of crime fiction determinedly outwards. I was impressed that
murder of the American was the focal point of what is a much wider
didn’t dominate the novel to the extent that its whys and
outshadowed the overall Asian scene, both criminal and spiritual. Would
want to leave crime behind altogether or go further along the path
already treading? I realise this may be a tough question to answer,
when you’re not yet finished with Sonchai and Bangkok
– at least I hope you’re
I am not sure. In the past two books I have realised how flexible
and open-ended the crime thriller form can be. I shall probably
experiment and to stretch the form as far as it will go. Who knows, it
develop into a genre of its own: the mystic thriller?
Q. Rebirth is a
recurring thread through your novel – naturally since
Buddhism plays such a large part in the novel and in
Sonchai’s personal life,
and colours his attitude to what is happening. It never feels
‘dragged in’ as a
theme, however. Is this because, as you live in Bangkok, it becomes part
everyday life for you?
I think the idea of rebirth or reincarnation is such a powerful one
for all of us, that to live for even a short time in a culture where
possibility is part of the fabric is to risk having your outlook
have no memory whatsoever of a previous existence, but I cannot help
about what it might have been like, or how the next one might turn out.
though I’ve never admitted that I believe in it, not even to
Q.Does Kathandu play
such a distinct role in your mind as Thailand
while you’re writing, or do all the Asian countries intrigue
you to the same
All of Asia is endlessly fascinating for its variety,
history and geography.
Since we in the West generally know almost nothing of this history,
can be like a continuous Discovery programme. Nepal,
though, occupies a very special place in my heart. I visited Kathmandu even before I visited
Thailand and have returned two or three times a year
ever since. The tiny
mountain state with its holy men, its mountains, its Hindu rituals, its
Buddhist refugees from Tibet, its high-achieving Western mountaineers, its
echoes of an
intensely romantic chivalric past, similar to that of Rajasthan: how
been a great pleasure both to read The
Godfather of Kathmandu and to have the
opportunity to throw questions at you, and thank you
for agreeing to be interviewed. My last all-important question is: when
does The Godfather’s successor appear?
The successor is written and with my agent. I cannot say more than
that, except that it does star Sonchai as usual.
The Godfather of Kathmandu.
Published by Bantam Press, Jan 2010
£12.99 pbk Airport edition.