Buddha on the Road by Jeff Pearce

Rating: 9/10 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 
Title: Buddha on the Road
Author: Jeff Pearce
Genre: Mystery/suspense, gay fiction
URL: Smashwords
Price: US $4.99
Other Information/warnings: Violence, reference to torture
Summary [from the publisher]:

Burma is known as “The Golden Land.” And for Brin Harper, Burma means golden memories from a youth spent in an exotic country with his mother, an accomplished diplomat.

But today Brin Harper is an NYPD homicide detective haunted by his mother’s suicide, and his grief is slowly eroding his relationship with his journalist boyfriend, Richard. Now a set of vicious murders is about to dredge up secrets and bitter regrets from thousands of miles away and many years ago.

The trail leads to a strange monk who doesn’t behave at all like a holy man. Brin is faced with a range of suspects, including the American widower of dissident Marlar Swe, to his on-again, off-again lover, Aung, a quiet professor who has survived time in Burma’s infamous Insein Prison.

As the killer claims more victims, each murdered in a fashion inspired by Burmese culture, Brin must confront his own past and play a duel of wits with the monk, trying to decipher what his role is in the case. And disturbing revelations wait for Brin when he exposes the murderer…

My review:

I found this little gem simply by browsing the latest books in Smashwords’ GLBT category, and how very grateful I am that I did. This is an involving, at time distressing mystery, revolving around Brin Harper, a cop grieving for his mother, and events in Burma during Brin’s childhood while his mother was a diplomat. Past and present, West and East, collide and echo in this tight, compelling book.

Brin is ostensibly American, but he spent so much of his childhood in Asia that he doesn’t feel completely at home in New York. He retains memories and habits from his time in the East, but as the story opens, he’s struggling to cope with the apparent self-immolation suicide of his mother months before. His current boyfriend is being a prick about it, his boss has just partnered him with the crassest new female cop in the section, and now he has to dive back into his past to make sense of a brutal torture murder of a Burmese man trying to pass as Thai. Even dispensing with the prick of a boyfriend and taking up again with his friend with benefits, Aung, doesn’t make his life any more restful – or safer.

I immediately warmed to Brin, so tormented, but yet so full of compassion. The author avoids fetishing Burmese culture – indeed, exposing the ugliness of the regime there which the West largely ignores – but manages to show why Brin remains so tied to it, and why it still dominates his thoughts and beliefs so many years later. We’re shown the dark and the attractive side in a way that to me, at least, demonstrates true understanding. The author worked as a journalist in the region, so I’m going to assume the book draws on his real experiences there. It gives the book a solidity and verisimilitude that very few Western authors manage to create when writing about Asia.

Other characters are also vivid, if not always appealing. Stephanie just made me want to spank her, she was so brash and rude. Aung, Brin’s sometime lover and now maybe more, is both East and West, a past full of torture and deprivation, and a present very much centered in New York as a professor. Darwin, Brin’s boss, was a delight – I particularly loved the way the author avoided stereotypes in certain characters.  William Bryson, widower of the Aung San Suu Kyi-like activist Marlar Swe who died horribly in a Burmese jail, adds a melancholy mystery to Brin investigations, and a monk who may or may not be involved in the killings, adds a supernatural element which keeps the reader guessing.

The writing was very enjoyable and well edited. A few POV shifts which threw me a little, and the sudden switch to the POV of the killer was a bit of a shock. However, the story carried me along swiftly, with real anxiety as to how it would end. It’s a tale as much about Brin’s coming to grips with his grief and past as it is about the mystery, and I think the former ends more satisfactorily than the latter – if only because Burma’s woes go on, and the people there still suffer.

The book is listed as ‘romance – suspense’ but the romance is not the central element, just so you don’t go in thinking it is. Brin’s relationship with Aung is important, but the book is about Brin and the murders. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the relationship aspects that were there, and the way it intersected with the murder investigation. I highly recommend this book and I will be seeking out others by the author. A writer to watch.