Tuesday, June 21, 2016


THE QUEEN OF PATPONG by Tim Hallinan (William Morrow, 2010)

Reviewed by Craig Sisterson

Poke Rafferty has an unusual family life: his wife Rose is a former dancer in Bangkok's most lurid red light district on Patpong Road and their adopted daughter Miaow lived on the streets. When a dangerous man from Rose's past reemerges, Poke realises to keep them all safe he may need to dig far deeper than what his wife has revealed about her former life. But will what he finds out shatter his entire world?

Tim Hallinan manages to take readers into some very dark places in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, the fourth in his excellent Poke Rafferty series, without ever becoming bleak or gratuitous. There's a vibrancy to Hallinan's writing, an electricity running through his prose, characters, and vivid Thai settings that helps balance things, bringing a little brightness to the blackness.

Bangkok is a sensuous city, and Hallinan uses that with aplomb to texture what is a cracking page-turner full of character and emotion as well as a storyline that grips, intrigues, and disturbs.

Travel writer Poke Rafferty has finally found some semblance of stability to his topsy-turvy life. He's married Rose, the bar girl turned businesswoman who stole his heart, and together they're living in 'domestic bliss', raising their adopted daughter, challenging adolescent Miaow. A 'real family', at last. The biggest issue on their plate seems to be that Miaow is in the local school production of The Tempest, but is miffed she's missed out on the lead role, instead playing Ariel. But for all the adventures and intrigues Poke has experienced throughout the series, he's never faced the truly dark side of Thai life that the women in his life, Rose and Miaow, suffered and survived.

Then it returns...

It is Rose's past, rather than series hero Poke's, that we delve into deeply in THE QUEEN OF PATPONG. Hallinan has taken a leap of faith centering this tale on Rose's story, but he pulls it off adroitly, deepening our understanding of Poke's world and the lives of those he loves.

Even Poke doesn't know all that went on during Rose's journey from rural village girl Kwan to star of Bangkok's notorious red light district, but the covers are painfully lifted when a malevolent man Rose thought was dead comes calling. When he interrupts Poke and Rose while they're out dining, Howard Horner comes across to Poke like another boorish ex-pat in Bangkok, but his appearance terrifies Rose. She knows the truth of his nature, and the danger that crackles beneath his surface...

As the present danger ratchets up, and violence ensues, Rose is forced to confess her full past to Poke and Miaow. It's a harrowing tale, and Hallinan intercuts between past and present, keeping the emotional needle high as THE QUEEN OF PATPONG unfolds. The twin timelines and strong focus on a supporting character's past could stumble in the hands of a lesser writer, but Hallinan proves once again he is a true master of the crime genre, finely balancing a powerful, page-turning narrative with a real sense of humanity in a vivid, evocative setting. Bangkok can be a bewildering metropolis full of sparkle and grime, flavour and heat, joy and danger - and Hallinan brings it to vibrant life.

Tim Hallinan is one of those writers who scores top marks across the board. He doesn't write pacy airport thrillers light on character, character studies light on plot, or tales with a strong sense of time and place while leaving readers wanting on other fronts. Instead he weaves a ferociously good story that blends all those elements into a near-perfect concoction. Like a Thai master chef who picks the freshest ingredients and expertly blends and balances them, bringing out their best, Hallinan has created a moreish feast that tantalizes and delights on a multitude of levels.

I can't wait for the next course.

Craig Sisterson writes features and reviews for print publications in several countries. He has interviewed more than 150 crime writers, discussed the genre at literary festivals and on national radio, and is a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards and the Judging Convenor of the Ngaio Marsh Awards. You can follow him on Twitter: @craigsisterson

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