Bangkok books that bring the city to life

Bangkok books that bring the city to life

Tawdry tales of Thailand nights abound, but these three really capture the imagination

Walk into any English-language bookstore in Bangkok and you get the impression every foreigner who ever visited wrote a novel based on his or her experiences.

The truth is most of these “experiences” led to an endless parade of prostitutes, ladyboys and beer bars causing bookshelves to heave under the weight of numerous books detailing the intricacies of dating Thai women or turning a femme fatale into the perfect wife.

However a few authors have broken the mold and we look here at three books that are essential reading for anyone with an interest in Bangkok and beyond.

"Bangkok 8" by John Burdett

Bangkok 8 John Burdette

A retired lawyer, British crime author John Burdett is known for his fondness of popular Bangkok nightspots like Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza. But don’t be fooled, because Burdett isn’t just another expat writing about seedy exploits.

Burdett’s style is explosive and enticing. With "Bangkok 8" he manages to take large chunks of the city’s red-light scene without slipping into banality. "Bangkok 8" is a rollercoaster crime story with an intriguing lead character in Sonchai Jitpleecheep, a luk-kreung detective who refuses to take bribes and as such is viewed as something of an oddity by his peers.

The plot moves through Bangkok’s underbelly as Sonchai unravels the mystery behind who killed a U.S. marine. What’s most exciting about the way Burdett writes is how deep he gets into the Thai psyche to the point where you forget that the author is a foreigner.

"Bangkok 8" is a book full of surprises, but more than anything, it’s entertaining and the story is gripping. Burdett goes to great lengths to show his respect for the lead character’s Buddhist beliefs and he also manages to make the city of Bangkok part of the story, rather than a mere setting.

Lucky for fans of Burdett, "Bangkok 8" is the first in a series of books following the escapades of Sonchai. Bangkok Tattoo and Bangkok Haunts are the sequels, and there may be more adventures in the future.

John Burdette reveals his favorite Bangkok haunts in this interview with CNNGo.

"The Laundry Man" by Jake Needham

Jake Needham Laundry Man

Jake Needham is another retired lawyer, one from America this time. While Needham’s writing isn’t quite as punchy as Burdett’s, he has a knack for bringing intricate plots to life. His stories blur the line between fact and fiction and have a “ripped from the headlines” feel.

The level of detail in "The Laundry Man" astounds, giving the story an authenticity that could only come from someone with intimate familiarity.

The lead character, Jack Shepherd, is at first read an unlikable anti-hero, but his flaws are compelling, enticing the reader to follow his journey as his life as a professor in Bangkok is turned upside down.

A phone call from a former law partner Jack thought dead lures the stubborn protagonist into a world of money laundering, espionage and crime syndicates. The closing chapters run at breakneck speed so buckle up and enjoy the ride.

"The Damage Done" by Warren Fellows

The Damage Done Warren Fellows

Warren Fellows’ biographical tale about life in a Bangkok prison set the standard by which similar books are compared.

The synopsis is simple: In 1978, 25-year-old Warren Fellows was sentenced to life for trafficking heroin. He served 12 years and all the horrible truth is laid out here for readers to gawp at, from pigs used as prostitutes to eating cockroaches as a source of protein.

Fellows admits his guilt from the outset, but it’s clear that he emerges from prison a shell of man having endured unfathomable conditions that would push any man or woman to the brink of their sanity. Fellows’ account is frank, relentless and powerful.

The author is not a gifted writer, but you get a sense of his character and how it changed over the course of 12 years. Fellows also manages to refrain from turning his account into a sob story, instead shaping a tale that appalls the reader with the full force of a punch in the face.