Vulture Peak is the most picturesque hilltop in Phuket, before the tsunami when the action in John Burdett’s murder mystery takes place. At its very top sits a McMansion in which three surgically mutilated bodies are discovered. Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is sent to examine the scene and subsequently entrusted with exposing a high-level international ring of organ harvesting. Sonchai’s boss is running for mayor of Bangkok and his American campaign advisors think that cleaning up the organ trafficking business in Thailand will be very good PR. Although it might turn out to be very bad PR, no one is quite sure how the case will play out.
Sonchai is sent on bizarre trips and stakeouts with a limitless black AmEx card and not enough information to know what he is getting into. His wife Chanya, an ex-prostitute working on her PhD, suspects he is cheating on her. He is a little bit tempted by several gorgeous women—one is simpatico, two are intriguing–but he is more perplexed by the layers upon layers of secrets and horrors he begins to uncover. A pair of brilliant, ruthless and beautiful identical twins from Hong Kong meet him in Dubai and take him on an overnight jaunt to Monte Carlo where they ditch him and head for Lourdes. An aging B-list rock star is drinking his way through his second liver. His companion, a castrated “katoey” is an opium addict and claims to have been coerced into the sex change surgery. A deformed madman is attacking women in Bangkok while he waits for face transplants to become state-of-the-art—and he has a close connection to a Thai general, also running for public office.
The plot isn’t as convoluted as it seems but the crime is. Are organs from executed Chinese prisoners supplying an international trade? Is Thailand the center of a booming illegal organ transplant ring? Which kinds of corruption are business-as-usual in Bangkok and Shanghai and which cross the boundary into homicide-on-demand? Sonchai is a very odd and engaging sleuth. He lives in a world of Asian values and he stays close to his Buddhist faith and view of the world. There is, however, nothing precious or especially serene about him or his mission. He is on a wild chase across Bangkok, Phuket, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dubai, Monte Carlo and the twisted psyches of good guys who are not entirely honorable and bad guys who are not wholly bad. Some, however, are beyond redemption whatever their motives or faith.
Vulture Peak is tense, funny, fascinating, engaging, fast-paced and sufficiently authentic and horrific to rivet your attention. Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep is a great character—there are a lot of great characters in the book. Burdett has created a wonky, exotic, corrupt and deeply spiritual world that is enormously entertaining to spend time in. I will look for more of his Bangkok novels and his smart, original protagonist when I’m in need of pure escapism and a gripping read.
Vulture Peak (Sonchai Jitpleecheep) John Burdett | Alfred A. Knopf 2012