I had never read anything by Timothy Hallinan prior to my instantaneous purchase-by-Kindle of the Edgar-nominated The Queen of Patpong. With nothing to hold in my hand – no blurb on the back of the book, no book jacket bio – I plunged into the the underbelly of Bangkok. Bar girls, tough guys, and plenty of bought-and-sold. In the first chapter, a predatory American circles and pulls in a 16-year-old bar girl, only to be stopped by a corrupt Thai policeman who is ready to let the girl go to certain torture and death – for a price. Between the two of them, they scare the cr*p out of the girl, who takes off in a big hurry for the farm she left behind. In the final paragraphs, it becomes obvious that the policeman and the tall American are in cahoots, with the goal of saving the girl. And that was it. I was hooked.
It turns out that this is the fourth Poke Rafferty novel, Poke being the tall American and Arthit his policeman friend. Poke’s evidently a travel writer, although we don’t see much traveling or much writing in this book. He’s married to a former bar girl, Rose, and they’ve adopted a 13-year-old named Miaow (but she wants to go by Mia). Life gets exciting and scary when a man from Rose’s past – a seductive mercenary who has left a trail of murdered young women behind him – finds her again. Fortunately, he’s the kind of sociopath who likes to play with his prey, because if he had just gone for the kill right off the bat, the book would have been maybe 50 pages long.
If you’re noticing, this is the fourth book out of the six nominated that hinges on action from the past. If the trend continues and we end up six-for-six, that’ll really be something unusual.
For sheer engagement, The Queen of Patpong is tops. The reader sees the love between Poke and Rose, the family the three of them have made together, and their friendship with Arthit. The backstory is well-told and is doled out over time, ratcheting up the suspense. By the time I was reading about Rose’s encounter with Howard Horner on the rocks – he has plans to kill her, but she outwits him – I couldn’t read fast enough. It reminded me Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 – you know the astronauts survive, but you’re on the edge of your seat anyway.
Also good about the book – the bad guys were not just believable, but real, and the meta-message – that the U.S. government would protect black ops mercenaries who killed civilians for fun – was chilling, but in today’s world, also believable.
The downside to The Queen of Patpong is pretty minor: if you haven’t read about these characters before, it takes a little catching up. The world of Bangkok is not readily familiar, so that takes a little catching up, too.
This is quite a different novel, some mystery but mostly thriller, and Rose fills the pages. It’s a tough call, but it doesn’t quite edge out Laura Lippman’s book, although it’s definitely ahead of Harlan Coben’s Caught. I “amazoned” Hallinan, and I see he has quite a backlist… guess I know what I’ll be reading when the Edgar countdown is over!
Lunchbox rankings for Best Novel: