We’re all exasperated with the police at one time or another. But in Bangkok, the pique is simply more acute.

“I used to buy whole trays of Rolex watches for police officers,” the city’s top sex tycoon complained to the New York Times last month. “I used to carry cash in black plastic bags for them. But they are still harassing me.”

In John Burdett’s new thriller Bangkok 8, the half-Thai, half-American, all-Buddhist detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep—as dry and charming as a good martini—explains the mores of this place the locals call Krung Thep:

“You must understand, the Royal Thai Police Force has always been way ahead of its time. It’s run like a modern industry, every cop is a profit center.”

Jitpleecheep’s good-natured defense of the corruption that surrounds his city’s thriving drug and sex trades is for the benefit of FBI agent Kimberley Jones (whom he likes to refer to as “the FBI,” as in “The FBI has a good figure …”).

Gun-loving and sexually frustrated, Jones is in Bangkok to 1) assist in Jitpleecheep’s investigation into the murder of an American marine whose car suddenly and mysteriously fills with venomous snakes; 2) provide an unlikely romantic interest for the hyper-meditative Jitplecheep; and 3) play the dumb Westerner, to whom Jitpleecheep can expound on the Asian way of doing things.

It’s a set-up that could go one of two ways: cheap or deep. Burdett threatens the former with sometimes-cartoonish cultural exaggerations—Jones parading around in a T-shirt that reads, “So many men, so little time,” Jitpleecheep musing, “On the way to my own hovel I meditate on my penis.”

What redeems the periodic nonsense is the fact that Jitpleecheep is such a fascinating character. Although he has taken a religious pledge to refuse bribes, he is bent on revenging his beloved partner, Pichai, who was killed by a cobra at the scene of the crime. When his detective work takes him deep into Bangkok’s red light district, he considers anew his Thai mother’s participation in the oldest profession, the consequences of which turn out to be unexpectedly fortuitous. And he pushes her to finally reveal the identity of his father.

Burdett’s novel conjures a wonderfully complex and humane Bangkok, a Third World city as overwhelmed by its own corruption as by its many visitors seeking drugs and sex. But what makes Bangkok 8 such a wonderful read is Jitpleecheep’s nearly pitch-perfect narration. He is at once hilarious, poignant and Buddha-obsessed, a man not simply caught between two cultural worlds, but two metaphysical ones, as well:

“In meditation there is a point where the world literally collapses, providing a glimpse of the reality which lies behind. I am experiencing the collapse but not the salvation. The city falls and rebuilds itself over and over while I wait in the heat.”

In trying to change the ring on his mobile phone, Jitpleecheep achieves insight into the East-West divide. Despite 15 choices—including the American national anthem, but not the anthem of any other country—he is forced to settle on Star Wars, a tune already used by one of his colleagues. “Angrily I realize that Motorola has led me down a labyrinth of apparent choice leading to a dead end. I found the perfect paradigm of Western culture, but without Pichai to share it with, who gives a shit anyway?”

On the subject of sex, as on phones, Jitpleecheep is curiously engaged. Pichai’s mother, like his own, was a prostitute. “As her English improved she reported back to Pichai the substance of her customers’ love babble. To look for nirvana in someone’s crotch, now that really is dumb. For Pichai the horror was that these spiritual dwarfs were taking over the world.”

Burdett only stumbles when he insists on cramming his research into the mouths of helpless characters. For instance, from Kat, an exotic performer who shoots darts out her privates, we receive this unusually articulate observation: “The West tries to turn the act of sex into a religious experience, when to us it is no more than scratching an itch.”

Then, rather more like a graduate student than someone all-the-while popping balloons in the above manner, she points out that in “Japan and South Korea, prostitution declined dramatically as the economy improved. When our economy improves, the number of prostitutes tends to go up rather than down.”

These sorts of lectures only get worse upon the appearance, two-thirds the way through, of a plastic surgeon, at which point the plot swerves down some pretty strange alleyways.

Whatever you do, don’t expect anything neat or conventional at the end of Bangkok 8, not with Jitpleecheep at the wheel.

“This isn’t a whodunit, is it?” he sighs to himself.

No, it isn’t. For Jitplecheep, for Burdett, that would be just too … Western.

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett (Knopf, 336 pages)
Concord (NH) Monitor, 200