PW: Bangkok 8 describes a compelling instance of the Bangkok police force being linked to organized crime. Is this based on anything factual?
John Burdett: Both the army and the police have historical links to organized crime, especially the drug trade. Indeed, these two forces almost made war on each other during an argument over who should take charge of a very large shipment of opium which came from the Shan States in the 1950s (guarded by Kuomintang regular troops financed and armed by the CIA as part of the resistance to China and the Vietcong). The army lost influence to the police in the early '90s, when it staged an abortive coup in which civilians were shot in the street. Recently, there has been a great deal of discussion in the media about police corruption, and hardly a day goes by that the Bangkok Post does not give an example of police connivance in crime of one kind or another. Generally, Westerners who do not break the law do not encounter any police corruption at all, which tends to be a strictly Thai-to-Thai phenomenon, the rules of which are understood on some level of the society which is rarely verbalized.
PW: What is your connection (so to speak) with the yaa baa ["crazy drug," slang for methamphetamine] trade?
JB: None other than interest in a sociological phenomenon of some importance to Thailand. For example, something like 2,000 people have recently been shot dead here during a police crackdown on the drug trade. By far, the most important part of the drug trade is yaa baa.
PW: This is your third book. Could you describe the previous two, and how does Bangkok 8 differ from them?
JB: The first was a first-person thriller set in London in the early 1970s, with a young lawyer as the central figure. It is very much a London book, and does not give a hint as to the author's interest in exotic locations. The second was, frankly, an opportunistic narrative which capitalized on the worldwide publicity surrounding the return of Hong Kong to China. It is a thriller, much more wide-ranging than the first, with, of course, a very exotic Far East location. Bangkok 8 is the first time I have entirely cut loose from a Western point of view. The narrative in the first person represents my imaginative leap into the skin of a totally Asian (Thai) character.
PW: Do you plan to revisit some of these characters in the future?
JB: It is intended as the first of a series, at least a trilogy.
PW: Is there any film interest in the book?
JB: It is in the hands of a Hollywood agent. Film rights to the first two have been sold, so we are quite hopeful, although I believe a non-Western hero and a foreign city present obstacles.
PW: How difficult is it for non-American writers to penetrate the American book market?
JB: I'm not sure that the nationality is important, I believe there are quite a few successful British novelists who have sold in the U.S. by writing about the U.S. I think it is immensely difficult to get the U.S. interested in non-U.S. topics. I don't think this is because the average American reader is disinterested, but more because of publishers playing it safe: if a thriller based in L.A. is a sure winner, why spend money plugging one based in Paris—or Bangkok? I read somewhere that when Martin Cruz Smith went to his original publisher with his idea for Gorky Park, they turned him down because they doubted anyone would be interested in a story about a Russian detective.