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THE HOT COUNTRIES
by Timothy Hallinan
Soho Crime, October 2015
321 pages
$26.95
ISBN: 1616954469


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Visitors to Tim Hallinan's Bangkok have previously met a group of aging ex-adventurers who hang out at an expat bar. They've been there long enough to know their way around the glittering city, but now getting around is getting more difficult. One of them, Wallace Palmer, is becoming increasingly vague and likely to misplace himself, forgetting where he lives and chasing after glimpses of a woman he loved who disappeared from his life many years ago. When a new expat joins them, flashing white teeth and an encyclopedia of factoids that he shares without a pause, they grow a little uncomfortable. Not only will he never shut up, he seems terribly interested in the whereabouts of their friend, travel writer and family man, Poke Rafferty. He seems to think Poke is hiding a treasure that he's come to Bangkok to claim.

Within the Poke Rafferty series, this is the sixth novel, but it's also the third in a related trilogy that started with THE FEAR ARTIST, which introduced a war criminal who exerted abusive power over his young daughter. Her story was continued in FOR THE DEAD. This novel adds a final chapter to the mayhem that was started by her vicious mercenary father and lingers around the fate of the traumatized girl.

Though it is labeled a thriller, those who read for fast action and don't care much about character development, setting, or beautiful language might grow impatient with the way this story unfolds. It's not that things don't happen. But the emphasis is on Poke's DIY family: his wife Rose, who as a girl had been sent from the north to work as a bar girl in the city where old and ugly foreigners seek youth and beauty, and his daughter Miaow, who was an abandoned street child who lived by her wits and now is a gifted, complex, and thoroughly real teenager. This story is also about other kinds of family, a group of street children being looked after by one of their own and the group of expats who journeyed years ago to a pleasure-seeking city that is no country for old men. The Westerners once looked out for themselves, but now have to look after each other, and the way they learn to do this is touching and quietly dramatic.

Hallinan's series can be described as vivid, poetic, often funny, always aware of social issues, and yes, thrilling. But in this installment another of his qualities as a writer is on display that isn't often associated with thrillers: tenderness. Though the evil at work is not so much larger than life as it is a normal kind of greed and selfishness, the depiction of the characters, old and young, threatened by greed is the novel's big-hearted center.

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

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, October 2015

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