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BOOK REVIEW

More murderous tales of Bangkok’s dark side

By Carlo Wolff
Globe Correspondent / January 16, 2010

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John Burdett’s thrillers starring Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the morally elastic Royal Thai police detective, are uneven, but they never fail as entertaining guides to the dark, exotic underworld of Southeast Asia.

“The Godfather of Kathmandu,’’ the fourth and newest book in the series, lacks the snap and bite of “Bangkok Haunts,’’ its tauter predecessor, or “Bangkok 8,’’ the first book. And like “Bangkok Tattoo,’’ the second book in the series, the story is convoluted, and Burdett doesn’t quite manage to tie together all the plotlines.

Still, “Godfather’’ is written with Burdett’s characteristic zest, serving up pungent slices of Bangkok’s bazaars and waterways, the Buddhist stupas of Kathmandu in Nepal, and the wrinkles of ancient Chinese ritual. It also brings Jitpleecheep back together with Vikorn, a police colonel who tries to look out for the stoner detective, Kimberley Jones, an FBI agent, and Lek, the “ladyboy’’ who helps him navigate Bangkok’s sexual crazy quilt.

In this latest installment, Jitpleecheep, a movie buff, is called in to investigate the death of Frank Charles, a Hollywood filmmaker and a regular in Bangkok’s sex tourism trade. His obese, mutilated corpse is found in the red light district. Jitpleecheep’s inquiry leads him to sources in Hollywood and to Mimi Moi, a sociopathic pharmacist and a power in Bangkok’s high society.

Moi’s expertise in chemicals - she names her cat Hofmann after Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who invented LSD - is impressive, and her sangfroid alluring. Intoxicants are her love, but her main gig is jewelry. She runs an illegal manufacturing operation that creates bootleg copies of the padparadscha, a highly prized gemstone of orange-pink color and the only sapphire with its own name.

A secondary plotline involves the dissolution of Jitpleecheep’s personal life after he loses his son, Pichai, in an automobile accident - a tragedy that prompts his wife, Chanya, to leave him for a nunnery.

Emotionally adrift, Jitpleecheep agrees to become a kind of personal assistant and emissary for Vikorn. His charge: Contact Tietsin, a failed lama, in Kathmandu and confirm that Tietsin can deliver $40 million in heroin, solidifying Vikorn’s command of that trade locally and eliminating his chief competitor, the blustery army general Zinna. After meeting with Tietsin, a shadowy and mystical figure, Jitpleecheep, who seeks to defuse the conflict between Vikorn and Zinna, eventually crafts an arrangement that will keep the peace by forcing the two competitors to work together in the drug deal.

As the book hurtles toward its conclusion, Burdett attempts to pull the story lines together, accelerating the suspense as Jitpleecheep gets to the bottom of Charles’s death, engages in Tantric sex with an acolyte of Tietsin’s, and consummates the heroin distribution deal.

The plotlines in this geography of dark ironies and moral pragmatism don’t join seamlessly, however. All they share is Jitpleecheep, who wriggles out of great danger in both.

For fans of Burdett, however, that might be enough: In “Godfather,’’ the admirably slippery Sonchai Jitpleecheep has taken another wild ride, surviving for at least one more jaundiced, yet hopeful, day.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.

THE GODFATHER OF KATHMANDU By John Burdett

Knopf, 320 pp., $25.95