John Burdett's fifth book starring morally elastic Thai cop Sonchai Jitpleecheep is the usual compelling read with the usual dark undercurrents. The Royal Thai police detective's latest mission: to penetrate and quash the burgeoning pan-Asian trade in body parts (territory done to a nasty, provocative turn in the superb 2002 film "Dirty Pretty Things") on behalf of Colonel Vikorn, Sonchai's shady, powerful boss, who is running for governor of Bangkok on a law-and-order platform.
The usual Burdett suspects are here, primarily Sonchai's wife Chanya, a former prostitute with accurate emotional antennae; his assistant, the katoey Lek, a vulnerable transsexual of exquisite sensitivity and diligence; and General Zinna of the Royal Thai Army, Vikorn's nemesis and rival in the underground economy.
Nobody writes better than Mr. Burdett of cultural differences. Like his half-caste hero Sonchai, Burdett is a hybrid, a former lawyer who lived and worked in Hong Kong and now spends a great deal of time in Bangkok. He's a native Brit unusually attuned to the textures of his adopted country. Even when the Sonchai novels flag -- this one isn't quite up to "Bangkok 8" or "Bangkok Haunts" -- the reader can depend on Mr. Burdett for color, atmosphere and provocative political insight.
Some countries might even take umbrage. Here, Vikorn and Sonchai discuss the wrinkles of the body organ trade:
"I thought you said eyes were only just coming onstream."
"I said whole eyes. Corneas are entry-level stuff-you don't even need a real surgeon, a well-trained nurse could do it -- but the corneas are kept intact on the eyeballs until they're needed -- it's called an eye bank. No civilized country is without one."
He covered his mouth to cough.
"The United Arab Emirates is one of the big markets for corneas. It's all that sun, burns them out. How long do you think human testicles would last on ice?"
"I have no idea. I've never heard of transplanting testicles."
"There's an incredible demand for them in North Korea, did you know that?"
"Of course, with North Koreans you never know if they're going to transplant them or eat them."
At the core of "Vulture Peak" are Lilly and Polly Yip, Chinese twins of remarkable venality. Not only are they expert surgeons, they are creative businesspeople. Their special trick, besides allure: they look so alike they're virtually interchangeable. How Sonchai handles their attractions is one of the more intriguing plot lines.
So is one involving Chanya and her fellow sociology student Dorothy, a "pretentiously depressed" British woman. Dorothy becomes a student of sex, paradoxically discovering her authentic self even as she acquires breast transplants. Nothing is simple in John Burdett's bawdy, wild fiction.
Another plot line joins Shanghai detective Chan, a bipolar cop, to Sonchai in efforts to solve the triple murder that launches the book and gives it its title. Vulture Peak is the name of a deluxe redoubt in Phuket, Thailand, where Sonchai goes to inspect three cadavers, all missing their faces -- and fingertips. Like Mr. Burdett's other Sonchai novels, this one begins dramatically, graphically and critically. When Sonchai asks the forensic pathologist whom she suspects, she says she has no real idea:
"You mean whodunit? Only in the more general sense." She raises her eyes. "Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, Adam Smith. Capitalism dunit. Those organs are being worn by somebody else right now."
As usual, Mr. Burdett slips his political criticism between the sheets of a largely compelling story. Sonchai's latest adventure is fine entertainment, with bite, from an author at home in many different worlds.
Carlo Wolff ( carlowolff.com ) is a writer and critic living in Cleveland. First Published January 22, 2012 5:00 AM