Thursday, July 12, 2012

John Burdett's Vulture Peak

John Burdett's Latest

John Burdett ( is an Englishman who divides his time between Thailand and France.  He was a Kong Kong based lawyer who moved to Thailand and started writing a mysteries.  His hero, Sonchai Jipleecheep, is the mixed race son of a Thai prostitute and and American Vietnam Vet he has never actually met.  Sonchai is a strict Buddhist and the last honest cop in Bangkok.

Bangkok, Thailand

A good mystery (see earlier post requires plenty of atmosphere and the Southeast Asian setting provides a colorful and spicy setting for  Burdett's series of novels. Bangkok provides a backdrop of rich vitality through which Sonchai manages to navigate. If you are squeamish about sexual roles or gender bending transformations then Burdett may not be your cup of Darjeeling. I find, however,  that Burdett's crime fiction rises far above the ordinary in its ability to provoke, to challenge and, at times, to even enlighten a bit, our jaded farang (Western) sensibilities.  Burdett has produced seven novels including Bangkok 8 and The Godfather of Kathmandu that describe the vitality and seediness of the red light district, tattoo parlors, sex change operations, drug abuse and violent crime across asia.  Thailand, of which Burdett is immensely fond (he has a Thai wife), is the only country in Asia that has never been conquered or colonized.  The kingdom Thailand is sui generis -- a unique and sacred land -- a land of mystery.

Raymond Chandler 1888 - 1959
Raymond Chandler, in his remarkable essay, The Simple Art of Murder, describes what a hero in the mystery genre must be like.  "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption. It may be pure tragedy, if it is high tragedy, and it may be pity and irony, and it may be the raucous laughter of the strong man. But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in."

Burdett's hero, Sonchai Jitpleecheep, in spite of his many eccentricities, conforms quite closely to Chandler's formulation.  The redemption he seeks is of the Buddhist variety (nirvana) and presumes reincarnation.  He is a man of honor making his way through the mean streets of a dishonorable and thoroughly corrupt world.  Married to a former Thai prostitute, he is assuredly not a eunuch, though he has eunuch and Katoey friends and colleagues.  He is a common man who smokes too much dope; he is an unusual man who has a startling range of awareness that spans Western and Asian perspectives.  He lives according to a code of honor and follows his Dharma.

Organ Trade
Burdett's latest novel, Vulture Peak (http:/, deals with a contemporary phenomenon which is found in southeast asia of the black market human organ trade.  Sonchai investigates a triple homicide where the vital organs have been removed from the three homicide victims for presumably commercial purposes.  Near the start of the novel, Sonchai is discussing the case with the forensic pathologist and there is the following exchange...

"Any ideas?" the doctor asks when we have replaced the sheet.

"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."

It is a bit disappointing to see Sonchai taking the kind of reflexive cheap shots that liberals often cast against the right.  This line of thinking ignores the fact that Baroness Thatcher has denounced in the black market in human organs as "slavery in bits and pieces."  Burdett's Sonchai also seems oblivious to the fact that President Reagan, who was consistently pro-life, signed into law the national organ transplant act which created a legal mechanism for widespread organ donation and has helped to save thousands of lives.

One must acknowledge, nevertheless, that some very disturbing things going on in the world of black market organ trafficking.  In the Middle East, what one might term "doctors without morals" are snatching the organs of refugees in the Sinai and selling them.

In China, which executes more people than all other countries in the world combined, there is no tradition of organ donation.  Most transplanted organs in China, therefore, come from prisoners whose organs are harvested after execution on a regular basis

The WHO estimates that over 10,000 black market operations, mainly kidneys, take place every year.  This illicit business is highly profitable and exploitive.  Poor people sell their bodies one part at a time getting paid around $2,500 to $5,000 for a kidney which is, in turn, sold for around $100,000 to $200,000.

The first successful kidney transplant took place in 1954 in Boston with the identical Herrick twins.  Today if an American father, for example, were to donate a kidney for transplantation to his daughter it would be a legal act of self-sacrifice and heroism.  If, on the other hand, a healthy young
American adult were to sell his kidney to a young female stranger for compensation (e.g. an -I-pad or a semester at college) it would be illegal (except Iran) and widely regarded as exploitation.  The only thing that is different in these two cases would be the intentional state of the donor.

Oldest Profession in Bangkok
Burdett has clear libertarian sympathies when it comes to the legalization of prostitution.  He writes, "the answer to the world economic crisis was obvious: legalize prostitution and tax it.  At 15 percent per bang, deficits would shrink overnight."  It is somewhat surprising to note that he seems more "conventional" with regard to the taboos associated with organ trafficking.

John Stewart Mill, 1806 - 1873
If one accepts John Stewart Mill's harm principle (“the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others...   Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."  On Liberty http:/, then it seems that the most humane answer to the problem of human organ trafficking would be legalization and regulation.  The fact is that thousands of people are dying each year due to the endemic shortage of organ donors--6,000 Americans per year died waiting for an organ in 2002 according to UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing).
A healthy human being can, however, live with only one kidney.  What gives society the right to prohibit an individual adult's right to freely sell a superfluous body part, thereby creating the shady world of criminal trafficking?

Is capitalism really to blame for black market organ trafficking as Sonchai seems to suggest?  Could Adam Smith and Capitalism not be the solution to the organ shortage dilemma that faces patients around the world?  Thousands of people die each year due to the endemic scarcity of organ donors and the soaring demand.  Would it not make more sense to legalize and regulate the trade in order to prevent the abuse and exploitation that come from making the practice illegal (Prohibition grew the mafia, see earlier post, Last Call, 1/13/12.)?  If an adult is free to alter their gender via surgery then why shouldn't they be free to alleviate human suffering and prolong life by selling a kidney?  Ultimately it comes down to this question, "Do we really trust individuals, regardless of income status, to govern themselves or not?"

Later on in Vulture Peak Sonchai encounters a devout Thai Buddhist monk who has this to say about farang (Westerners)...

"I never know where to start.  They're so programmed by materialism, they think they want enlightenment, when all they're really looking for is a new kind of gratification, a thrill they can't get from a pill, or a bottle or a video game.  When I try to explain that strong emotion is inherently unreliable and isn't what the Buddha meant when he referred to the heart, they think I'm being cruel.  Thai monks may not be what they were, but they still have the perspective.  For farang I despair.  Hardly a one of them I meet who has a hope of being reborn into the human form.  I see sheep and dogs of the future in designer T-shirts climbing up and down this mountain, getting in an out of the tourist buses."

"They're stuck in Aristotelian logic: 'A cannot be not-A,'" (says Sonchai).

"Tell me about it!  The discovery of nirvana is the psychological equivalent of the invention of zero but vastly more important.  Think of where mathematics was before zero and you have the level of mental development of the West: good/bad, right/left, profit/loss, heaven/hell, us/them, me/you.  It's like counting with Roman numerals."  

Ultimately Vulture Peak, like Burdett's other novels, presents us with an entertaining and provocative escape from a refreshingly different perspective.  Commander Kelly says, "Check them out!"


"Not bad, but IMHO you miss one huge point which is implicit if not explicit in the text. If you want my comment on your comment it is this:

The naive belief that serious social problems arising from materialism can be cured by resort to the criminal law is, unfortunately, itself a big part of the problem. It has not worked with drugs, or prostitution (over 5000 years of trying) and it has not worked with organ trafficking. This is not an issue of Left versus Right (another fatal distraction in Western thought), but of the underlying values of a society. If those values boil down to money, then money will rule whether you try to cure it with free trade or a police state or something in between. Where money rules you will have organ trafficking, drugs, prostitution etc - and an awful lot of psychoses. That's what the monk was trying to say in the book.

There is, of couse, no reason why you should take this from a Brit, when the greatest American thinker, economist and ecologist has expressed it so much more eloquently:

Chief Seattle, Pioneer Square
'The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?
Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people.
We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family.
The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water's murmur is the voice of my father's father.
The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother.
If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers.
Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.
This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.
One thing we know: our God is also your God. The earth is precious to him and to harm the earth is to heap contempt on its creator.
Your destiny is a mystery to us. What will happen when the buffalo are all slaughtered? The wild horses tamed? What will happen when the secret corners of the forest are heavy with the scent of many men and the view of the ripe hills is blotted with talking wires? Where will the thicket be? Gone! Where will the eagle be? Gone! And what is to say goodbye to the swift pony and then hunt? The end of living and the beginning of survival.
When the last red man has vanished with this wilderness, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, will these shores and forests still be here? Will there be any of the spirit of my people left?
Chief Seattle
We love this earth as a newborn loves its mother's heartbeat. So, if we sell you our land, love it as we have loved it. Care for it, as we have cared for it. Hold in your mind the memory of the land as it is when you receive it. Preserve the land for all children, and love it, as God loves us.
As we are part of the land, you too are part of the land. This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you.
One thing we know - there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.'

Chief Seattle to the President of the United States."  John Burdett 7/12/12


Thanks very much for your thoughtful clarification, John Burdett!

Capitalism, as advocated by Adam Smith, Milton Friedman and others, does not assert or imply that money must be the underlying values system of our society as you seem to suggest.  Capitalism insists on the freedom of the individual to set his own economic or non-economic (e.g. ascetic) course.  I would argue that capitalism is the most spiritual economic system devised by man -- precisely because it does not make any ideological demands on on its practitioners.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to live inside of free market economies are not subject to thought control.  I view advertising, with all its exuberant bad taste, as an essential expression of free speech.  We are free to advocate for free markets (my preference), to revile free markets, or to pay no attention to the debate over free markets (from monasticism to "let's go shopping!"). 

Consider the case of George Lucas who has sold a lot of movie tickets and prospered under Western capitalism.  As you may read in my earlier post, Red Tails versus Obama (6/20/12), Lucas does not believe in capitalist democracy.   He said in an interview with Charlie Rose, " I'm a very ardent patriot. But I'm also a very ardent believer in democracy, not capitalist democracy. And I do not believe that the rich should be able to buy the government. And that's just the way I feel."

In my view, Lucas has every right to say anything that he wishes to -- no matter how idiotic or hypocritical he may sound.  "I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it", wrote Voltaire.  Yes, he was a conservative too in my book (see earlier post, Voltaire -- Conservative of the Enlightenment, 3/3/12)!

Lucas's case could be duplicated many times over.  Michael Moore, for example, runs a cottage industry in capitalism-bashing which seems to keep him prosperous and well-fed.

The Stalinist version of communism,  a clear police state, insisted upon controlling not only the economic sphere but the spiritual/ideological sphere as well.  That is why it was compelled to ruthlessly suppress the free exercise of religion which it rightly saw as a competitive to itself.

There are free societies and there are fear societies.  A police state, whether communist or fascist, must be a fear state.  I prefer to live in a free society and to promote freedom and liberty for all.

You cite Chief Seattle with whom I am quite familiar.  I reside in Seattle in the summer months, London during the school year.  I applaud much of his speech (interconnectedness of all things, brotherhood of man, etc.), but I must question his criticism of property rights.  I find Chief Seattle's brand of socialism, however poetically expressed, no more attractive than that of Pangloss or Proudhon.  Before you dismiss me as just another 'farang' caught up in a web of materialism, consider this...

Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776) wrote, "The property which every man has in his own labor, as it is the original foundation of all other property, so it is the most sacred and inviolable." 
I think that PJ O'Rourke expressed it quite well when he wrote, "Property rights are not an invention of the rich to keep poor people off their property.  Property rights are the deed we have to ownership of ourselves."  P.J. O'Rourke, On The Wealth of Nations, 2007. http:/

Ultimately, individual property rights are our safeguard us against slavery (our right to own our bodies and our own labor) and tyranny (e.g. the king/chief/dictator owns all the land).  They are the guarantor of freedom.  They must, therefore, be cherished and protected.

Nielzsche wrote, "No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself".  (see earlier post Nietzsche Quotes, 4/20/12).

When the Chief says, "You can't buy my land," isn't he really saying, "This land belongs to the chief!"?


"The problem I have with your response is the same as I outlined in my first response: naivete. Sure, it would be nice if Capitalism developed along the lines you suggest - but are you blind? It has emphatically not worked out that way at all. The economic system we have is dominated by corporations, not individuals. Corporations are legal entities - actually termed 'legal personalities' in a lot of text books, which owe no social duties at all and exist purely for the enrichment of shareholders. There is no point in listing here the destructive effect of vast multi-national corporations, but you will find a great many people with your views expressing dismay at the behaviour of such (sub-prime mortgages that brought the system down are a good example), without - and here lies the naivete - realizing that such behaviour is an inevitable result of the form of capitalism we have - which hardly existed at the time of Adam Smith. Nor have you addressed my point about criminality. What you actually have today is a world where whole cities, sometimes whole countries, are controlled by drug barrons. Where so-called democratic elections are actually funded from drug money. Where according to some respectable accounts one third of the money washing around the world is owned by drug lords - this is the real world, not the one Adam Smith wrote about centuries ago. This is Capitalism in the real world."  John Burdett 7/13/12


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Dear John,

Thanks again for your reply.  I will try to polish my spectacles and try once again.

Corporations are owned directly and indirectly by individual shareholders. The underlying businesses behind these corporations provide goods and services to the public.  The better job they do of serving the public, the more sales and profits they will generate.  If they fail to serve the needs of the public, then they will ultimately fail.  These corporate profits are ultimately returned to shareholders who use them to buy houses, pay for education, raise families or buy illegal drugs.  It is the spread of free market capitalism that has done so much to elevate living standards around the globe (see earlier post, The Growth Map, 1/11/12).  I think you may be forgetting the vast constructive effect of businesses whether they are multi-national corporations (including publishing and film companies), night food stalls in Bangkok, or Micro-brewers from New Jersey (see above).  This too is capitalism in the real world.

The subprime mess was a bit more complicated than you suggest above. Poor government policy choices were at least as much to blame as corporate malfeasance.  When the "dream of home ownership" is elevated to sacred cow status by politicians and regulators of all political stripes -- beware.

Freedom always, by definition, implies the option of making poor or even evil choices.  Freedom, therefore, necessarily implies the possibility of criminality. The complete absence of corruption is, therefore, not possible within a free society.  This why we need a rule of law, a working justice system, law enforcement and detectives such as Sonchai.  Nations that lack such an infrastructure ("countries controlled by drug barons") suffer in appalling ways.

Mystery readers love the genre because they know that the world is corrupt.  They understand that mankind is programmed for criminality.  The world is out of joint, but along comes a hero who walks the mean streets and commits himself to the struggle against criminality in himself and the whole world.  The heroic detective, including Sonchai, battles against the forces of entropy and fulfills an essentially conservative role -- he restores order to the world.

Academic socialists such as Rousseau, Proudhon or Pangloss and their, dare I say, "naive" supporters such as George Lucas or Michael Moore help to inflict real suffering onto the real world (from yesterday's Stalin to today's Obamacare) by robbing individuals of their self-governing power, by undermining the cause of human freedom.  From a libertarian perspective, it shows a lack of respect for humanity's ability to make life's hard choices and accept the consequences.   From a Buddhist perspective, this demonstrates, perhaps, a distinct lack of 'compassion'. 

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