Everyone Burns is a detective novel. And although it lives up to many of the detective novels expectations (David Braddock, the detective protagonist is a somewhat cynical man who has seen everything, is a bit of a womaniser, smokes, has a bad opinion of the local cops, and keeps us entertained with a sometimes insightful, sometimes clueless, but always entertaining internal dialogue) it is by no means your usual run-of-the-mill detective novel.
What makes it different? For one, its setting. This is not New York or a big city. This is Samui, an island part of Thailand, where sexual tourism is rife, politics and the local police are corrupt, and foreigners (Sarangs) have to live in the outskirts of society following unspoken but very strict rules. The author managers to paint a vivid image of Samui, a place of contrasts, with very wealthy patrons, gangsters who control everything and everybody, and extremely poor individuals who can’t pay for a cataract operation. But what I found personally fascinating was the deep understanding of the functioning of such society, where gross corruption can be offset by an appearance of outward morality and normality.
David Braddock, despite the many recognisable traits he shares with your favourite detective, is anything but a common guy. He has no known qualifications for the job he does. He is a triumph of vocational approach to training. He does the job because he can. In the same manner that he offers (mostly to foreigners like him) his skills as detective, he also offers counselling (that he seems to have mastered via some courses, ample reading and a generous dose of common sense) to natives. To handle these two strands of his business he has two rooms in his office and will show (or his pregnant secretary will) his clients to the East or West office. His fees also vary according to the clientele. He is married, but his relationship with his wife is mysterious from the start and although he is deeply in love with her, she seems to be a very rare presence in his life. He has a housekeeper who is a character and steady influence, he visits a Buddhist monastery and the novel is peppered with Buddhist wisdom and Braddock’s attempts at applying it to his investigations. He has a number of female friends, some married, and he is receiving what appear to be blackmail letters that seem to come from somebody in the know about his relationship with the wife of the chief of police.
He is British but has lived in Thailand for a number of years, although his standing appears to be still uncertain. We don’t know much about his background but this is a man who can quote the classics, speaks Thai, is well informed on local, international and current affairs and is a deep thinker with a peculiar but internally consistent sense of morality. This being a first person narration I was left wanting to know who he really is. If the many cases he gets involved in get solved in some fashion (foreign men get killed and burned in a spot where years back a young man killed himself by setting himself alight), I felt there were more questions left unanswered than fully satisfying answers.
I loved this novel. Although I’ve read a few detective novels and seedy settings are not uncommon, the degree of local knowledge, understanding of customs and familiarity with procedures (and I understand from reading about the author that Mr Dolan spends a fair amount of time in Thailand) goes well beyond what I expected and rather than a filler to justify some elements of the story, I felt it was integral to it and fascinating to read for the insights it provided. The cases were interesting and the first person narrative, like in many of the most loved classic detective novels, allowed you to test yourself, look for clues, and try to find the elusive connections that you knew existed but couldn’t quite work out.
The characterisation not only of Braddock but of most of the important secondary characters was vivid and rang true. How reliable a narrator Braddock is, is something that you’ll have to decide. I can say I was surprised at a particular point in the novel, because although something had not made much sense to me (and I won’t spoil the plot) when I realised why I still wasn’t sure if it was the way the scenes were set or my own lack of acumen at points.
My feeling and opinion is that this series will be a five star series, but I wanted more background, more story and more development in some of the characters. I believe that all will come together as a whole and can’t wait to read the rest of the novels. If you like detective novels and want to try something new, don’t waste any more time and read Everyone Burns.