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Review: Two top-drawer espionage novels

By L.D. Meagher

"Bangkok 8"
By John Burdett
336 pages

"Bunker 13"
By Aniruddha Bahal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
352 pages

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(CNN) -- Ah, summertime, when the temperature rises and long, sultry days are punctuated by the occasional roller coaster ride.

Two new thrillers seem perfectly suited to the season -- sizzling with heat and adrenaline. They are also packed with exotic locales, fascinating characters and intriguing ambiguities.

"Bangkok 8" by John Burdett starts with a bang. Or, rather, a hiss. A U.S. Marine stationed in the Thai capital is murdered -- by snakes. It falls to Detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep to solve the riddle of how the reptiles became lethal weapons and why.

He is motivated by more than a puzzle. One of the snakes kills his partner and lifelong friend Pichai. They are the only cops in Bangkok's infamous District 8, and perhaps in the whole city, who aren't corrupt. Sonchai swears vengeance.

Burdett's protagonist may be honest, but he's far from perfect. Sonchai, the son of a prostitute and a long-gone American GI, seeks solace in drugs and doesn't always follow strict police procedure. He knows District 8 -- Bangkok's world famous amusement park of all things sexual -- like he was born there, which he was. Even as he seeks the Path to Enlightenment, he sees the world around him with unblinking eyes.

The locations in "Bangkok 8" are dazzling. Burdett -- a "non-practicing" British attorney living in Hong Kong -- evokes the beauty and the tawdriness of the city and its people with equal aplomb. He steeps the reader in Thai sensibilities:

"The 'Matichon' daily reports that an unusual number of ghouls have been sighted at the notorious junction of Rama VI and Traimit," he writes. "This is an accident black spot and experts opine that the ghouls are spirits of the dead who lost their lives in crashes and are now intent on causing still more fatal accidents for the sake of companionship. In death as in life, my people love to party."

Throw in a wealthy American art dealer, a comely FBI agent, a mysterious, statuesque Afrasian named Fatima, and you have the makings of a first-rate yarn. Burdett's skill at evoking a sense of place and evolving character elevate "Bangkok 8" to the first rank of the thriller genre.

Getting a cut

Getting a cut

Many of the same attraction are found in "Bunker 13."

The locations are equally exotic -- the front lines of the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India. The protagonist is every bit as compelling -- a thrill-seeking, drug-stoked, muckraking journalist. The story is every bit as complex, though the only mystery that needs to be solved is what drives the man called "MM" to do all the crazy things he does.

Like jump out of airplanes at high altitude. On heroin.

While Sonchai, the detective, is a traditionalist, MM is post-modernism personified. He's sniffing around for arms smuggling in Kashmir. He's digging into drug smuggling in the army. And he's dealing himself in for a cut. Author Aniruddha Bahal, an investigative journalist, sets himself a major technical challenge -- telling the story in the second person. And he pulls it off.

"All that stuff you read about in books," he writes, "about heroes keeping track of where they are headed when they have a cloth over their head is all for nutcases who haven't tried it themselves. The real pro drivers take you once around the block then take a couple of 180-degree spins before they shoot the hood the right way. By the time you reach the second block, you aren't even trying."

"Bunker 13" has more twists and turns than a Himalayan footpath. Each time the reader seems to be drawing a bead on what MM is really up to, his agenda makes a sharp left turn.

It is only as his early life is slowly revealed that his current activities start to add up. In the meantime, there's lots of sex -- some of it extremely graphic -- and drugs and rock-and-rolling -- some of it extremely violent -- to pass the time between capers.

Bahal is equally at ease capturing the temple-throbbing beat of a rave party and the heart-pounding action of night patrol in enemy territory. In the end, MM, too, is seeking revenge, and he exacts it in wildly imaginative ways.

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