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by Tim Hallinan
William Morrow, August 2010
320 pages
ISBN: 0061672262

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

This book has all the things that I like and dislike about a mystery thriller. There's a solid story, people to care about and a clear good/bad dichotomy. There is no question in whom the evil resides in this book. And I've come to truly care about the characters in Hallinan's fiction; Poke, Rose and most especially their resourceful, tough and flat-out terrific daughter known as Miaow who may want to be called "Mia" from now on but that's not really determined.

THE QUEEN OF PATPONG is not a title you want to be awarded; it might mean you're the best naked dancer/prostitute in one street in Bangkok. Oh, lucky you. This book is primarily Rose's story; how she came from a village where she was considered ugly and tall and is convinced that her only way out and the way to help her family, including her sister - is to go to Bangkok and dance. This story is sad as hell, and while I'm sure it's not uncommon, Rose (who was born "Kwan" which means spirit) is faced with choices that are only worse. Her father, an abusive nasty drunk, may be planning a wretched future for Kwan. So she goes to the big city. Kwan does not realize that while she might be freakishly tall for some people, she is simply gorgeous. And yes, she becomes one of the stars of the dancing girl world, populated by poor girls and foreigners seeking cheap sex. It's a horrid world but Kwan finds, as anyone would, friends, family, support. Even if your family might be other prostitutes and crooked cops they care about you and look out for you as you look out for them.

We only know from references in past books about Rose's life and this fills in that huge chapter. The fact is however, that while it's truly well written and an interesting history, there's very little mystery or suspense here of the sort we expect in crime novel. We know how it ends, sort of. That is until a man shows up to threaten Rose and her family. A man whom she says she thought she had killed.

And that's the plot of THE QUEEN OF PATPONG; telling Rose's story and escaping Howard Hunter, an evil sadistic psychopath whose entire focus, with the help of a henchman (for he can only be called that) is to kill the one that got away. And her family. Because evil sadistic psychopaths don't like being outsmarted.

The resolution, which you pretty much can predict, given the good/evil nature of this book and its characters, is either horrific and stunning or gratifying. Or all of the above. I don't know. I knew it was coming and found it (as I am sure the author intended) to be disturbing.

I was not really happy with this book as a whole, because, well, I don't like reading about evil sadistic psychopaths like Hunter. At the same time, weird though it might sound, I had a hard time getting to understand Hunter. (I know, why would I want to?) You learn very little about him, and while there is part of the book where you find out how it is he's been able to do what he does, there's still an emptiness there for me about this more-than-bad bad guy. And it's harder still to comprehend why anyone would help someone as low and vicious. That said, there was so damn much in the book to like. Hallinan is simply one of those talents. He writes seamlessly. From the first book of his, you get these people and you get modern Bangkok, what attracts and what horrifies about this city. I find it hard to imagine someone not wanting to read Hallinan because he writes so well and you learn so much and he characters are so fully realized. It's good to read more about Arthit, the cop whose wife died so recently as he's a contrast to Poke and we need him around.

You'll have to decide for yourself if you want to read this book. My dislike of the rather long violent parts and chase scenes, as well, as noted, of the sort of monster villain makes it hard for me to be enthusiastic. There are countless readers for whom this is not a problem. And, but, damn, this is a well-written book in a mesmerizing series. Maybe, if I'm lucky, Hallinan will spin Miaow off into her own series. She's that good.

Andi Shechter, who has twice has chaired mystery conventions, has an ancient MA in Criminal Justice and is proud to have appeared in a mystery as a New York runway model.

Reviewed by Andi Shechter, November 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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