Review by Beth Terrell
A few years ago, I passed a rack of discounted hardback books. One captured my attention. The title, A Nail Through the Heart, was evocative; the cover was attractive; and I had just read a post by the author, Timothy Hallinan, on DorothyL, a newslist for mystery lovers. Wanting to support a fellow DL-er, I picked it up and read a few lines. They were good. Very good. So, I bought it, beginning a long-term love affair with Hallinan's series of beautifully written thrillers set in Bangkok and featuring "rough travel writer" Poke Rafferty. Poke writes travel books for people who want to experience the parts of the world not included on the usual lists of tourist destinations. Some of those parts are a little seedy, a little gritty, and a little dangerous. When he arrives in Bangkok to research a new book, he falls in love with Thailand, the Thai people--and with Rose, a beautiful bar dancer in the red-light district of Patpong. Together, they rescue and adopt Miaow, a street child who struggles to reconcile her love for her adoptive parents with her shame about her roots and about Rose's former profession.
In the fourth book in the series, The Queen of Patpong, as Poke, Rose, and Miaow are dining at a favorite restaurant when Rose "drops her fork with a clatter on top of her cup, which tips over and spreads coffee across the tablecloth." A man approaches the table, someone who knew Rose when she was a dancer. After threatening her and her family, he swaggers away, and Rose tells Poke that the man is someone she thought--and had hoped--she'd killed.
With the help of a menacing partner, the stranger begins a cat-and-mouse game clearly intended to end with Rose's death--and the deaths of her loved ones. Hallinan plays out the plot masterfully, juxtaposing the elements of a tense, modern-day thriller with a sensitive exploration of Rose's past and her transformation from an awkward village girl nicknamed "Stork" to the strong, confident woman she has become.
Much of the book takes place in the past, beginning with Rose's discovery that, although her father has accepted money from her teacher to keep her at home and in school, he has also sold her to someone in the sex trade. She escapes this all-too-common situation with the help of Nana, a former village girl turned bar dancer. Nana also "sells" her, but into a more benevolent system.
Hallinan balances the various elements of this book perfectly. The tension is high throughout. The moral message is both powerful and subtle. Poke's determination to save both the lives and the emotional fabric of his family engages the reader from beginning to end, and the portrayal of Rose is pitch-perfect--thoughtful, insightful, and always authentic.
If you've already fallen in love with Timothy Hallinan's Poke Rafferty series, The Queen of Patpong will cement your loyalty. If you haven't...it's probably because you haven't read him.