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by Timothy Hallinan
Soho, November 2017
358 pages
ISBN: 1616957506

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Tim Hallinan's Poke Rafferty series does three things very well: it offers readers original and twisty plots, it brings the city of Bangkok to vivid life, and it makes the ins and outs of family life as exciting as any thriller. These are not soap opera thrills, rather the ordinary dramas of navigating a marriage, watching a child become a teenager, and the suppressed anxiety of a pregnant woman who worries about a miscarriage. Plot, place, and characters are wrapped in a fourth quality: Hallinan writes beautifully. The eighth entry in the series is no exception.

Readers begin the story in a room with a man who doesn't know what time it is. He has fragments of memory: a nurse who wears a mask with a lipstick smile painted on it, the movement of the light through the blinds that tell him he's near water. But whatever it is that drips through his IV wipes his memory away and he can't scratch his itchy nose because he's cuffed to his bed.

Meanwhile, Rafferty's daughter brings a school friend to him with a problem. Edward's father has disappeared, and in the twelve days since he vanished someone has been draining his bank accounts. Rafferty has a reputation for solving problems the police can't or won't tackle. In this case, he needs to recruit a close friend, the disillusioned police officer Arthit, to figure out what's going on. The missing man is part of a pattern. If they don't find Edward's father in the next two days, his body is likely to turn up in a canal, one leg weighted with a cast, like a dozen other "sexpats" who moved to Thailand to enjoy a dissolute lifestyle.

Hallinan has explored the seamy side of Bangkok with an eye for hidden beauty and a great tenderness for people whose lives are shaped by its sex industry, including in this story a transgender Lao girl who wants badly to act on stage rather than play the sex-object role she's been assigned by poverty. In THE QUEEN OF PATPONG Hallinan evoked the life of a girl sent south by her impoverished family to become a dancer and a prostitute. THE HOT COUNTRIES features a group of expats who came for the excitement but are now facing old age and approaching death in lonely exile. Here, Hallinan manages to pull off a kind of magic: he makes us feel puzzled sympathy for a rich man who has neglected his son and wasted his fortune trying to fill his empty life, one that has only hours left before it's all over. It fills in yet another part of the Thai landscape and the lives of people drawn to the country for selfish reasons, hoping to fill a hole in themselves.

We can only hope this series, with its poetic exploration of human relationships in a fascinating setting, has a very long life ahead of it. It's one of the best out there.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, November 2017

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