by Cynthia Chow
Murder mysteries are, by definition, morbid. However, I admit a preference for the lighter side of death, namely humorous mysteries that refrain from completely glossing over death but do highlight the lighter side of the investigations. So it was with trepidation that I approached Timothy Hallinan’s latest Poke Rafferty thriller, The Queen of Patpong. Despite my having loved his sarcastic and hard-boiled Simeon Grist series and thoroughly enjoyed the previous entries in the Poke Rafferty Bangkok-based series, The Queen of Patpong confronts topics guaranteed to have me shuddering; namely, the sex trade and exploitation of minors.
And yet…The series began with Poke already in a relationship with Rose, a former bar-girl who now owns a cleaning business and raising Miaow, a too-wise-for-her-age street urchin the couple recently adopted. The sudden reappearance of a menacing figure from Rose’s past as a prostitute though, brings to light a life Rose cannot forgot but has amazingly overcome. As the novel shifts to flashbacks to Rose’s childhood and path to prostitution, Hallinan brilliantly explores the ugly history of the sex trade in Thailand without being forced or preachy. In one of the most powerful and haunting scenes a young Rose sits with her parents and teachers as they negotiate her fate. The growing horror as Rose slowly begins to realize that her father plans to sell her into prostitution is so understated and menacing that the reader shares her repulsion, yet the scene is so quiet and underplayed that the scene itself is neither repellant nor exploitative. Perhaps that is why it is so powerful.
The author has obviously devoted much research into the history of Bangkok’s sex trade, a topic that has become something of a joke to Westerners. The relationships between the bar-girls, who create their own families within the brothels, lighten the novel and prove to be both sad and hopeful. Rose’s eventual escape from this world is as well powerful as she shows Miaow that it is something to hold with pride, not shame. Surprisingly, when the novel shifts back to present time and the figure who has come back to claim Rose the reader may feel a little disappointed as it becomes more of the traditional action-packed thriller centered on the charming and protective Poke. However, this is an extraordinarily positive, fascinating, and witty read that is unforced and always entertaining.
Another surprising mystery that I normally would have ignored had it not been for the record of the author was Live toTell, by Lisa Gardner. While violence against children is never a subject I can warm to, violence perpetuated by them is equally unappealing. And yet again…The opening scene that depicts the menace of domestic violence is horrific, made even more so when the identity of the abuser is revealed. Gardner brings back the acerbic Detective DD Warren and introduces two women, one of whom overcame a tragic past that cost her her family and who now works in a unit that attempts to heal similarly damaged children, and the other a woman held captive by her love for the abuser she believes will eventually kill her. Cases involving the murder and suicides of entire families all become tied together, with the detective trying to distinguish the victims from the killers. Normally this is a topic I would avoid like the plague, as children as murderers is a subject so repellant and against nature that it creeps me out and has me avoiding playgrounds. However, like Hallinan, Gardner has crafted a well-written novel that balances fascinating and engaging characters and quick dialogue with a plot that educates and entertains. The suspense is unrelenting with enough twists to mislead and surprise readers. These two authors share a talent for writing about horrific crimes without repelling or manipulating the reader. Despite their darkness, these two novels can be enjoyed even by readers who prefer the lighter side of murder.
Cynthia (Cindy) Chow developed a love for mystery novels after working summers in a failing used book & comic store (there was a lot of free time). Born and raised on the island of Oahu, she balances the librarian lifestyle with obsessions for motorcycles and high heels. Occasionally at the same time, much to the dismay of her parents.