Sunday, October 18, 2015

Risk, Danger, and Love, in THE HOT COUNTRIES, Timothy Hallinan, Thailand

The seventh Poke Rafferty Bangkok thriller is out -- and it's a fantastic wrap-up to this part of the series. THE HOT COUNTRIES tackles crime in one of the world's most notorious cities for crime, but from the point of view of a travel writer who's fallen hopelessly and forever in love ... with Bangkok, with his wife Rose (who knows the sex trade from the inside), and with his firmly adopted daughter Miaow. The trouble is, love may have put its rose-colored lenses in front of some other parts of Poke's life, where it's not a wise idea to feel mushy and warm about what's going on.

The action opens with a moody and sweet scene at the Expat Bar, a local men's hangout where Poke's wandered more often than usual lately, escaping the surge of British TV watching that Rose and Miaow (or Mia, in her new teen persona) are indulging in. The oldtimers at the bar have made him welcome for years. So in Poke's mellow evening, there's no reason to worry about the presence of a new fellow in the line-up at the bar, Arthur Varney. At least, not until Poke realizes that Varney is the mover-and-shaker behind some very threatening messages coming his way, messages that threaten his family (and by the way, Rose is pregnant) and also his friends. Especially at risk is Treasure, a street waif who's seen horrendous abuse and is recovering very slowly after Poke's managed to settle her into a group home for kids who share her past experience. And the threat is being delivered via messages to Poke himself.
Treasure says, "I'm frightened."

"I know," Poke says. "But we're not just going to keep you away from him. We're going after him, and when we find him, you'll never have to think about him again."
A rash promise.

Here's where that highly technical term "part of a series" come into play. Yes, this is number 7 in Timothy Hallinan's Bangkok series, but it's also the third -- and completing title -- of a set of the Rafferty books that focus on how and whether Treasure can actually be saved from both the horrors of her past life and the overwhelming power and wealth of her abuser(s). As he did with number 6 (For the Dead), Hallinan is playing Poke Rafferty's almost naive drive to save the people he cares about, against the sweaty tropical weight of a culture that's almost given up on its vulnerable members.

Although Poke is highly motivated to fight the criminals battering his life, he's truly an "amateur sleuth" in the sense of the genre definition: no martial arts skills, no amazing weapons, not even a trained sniper on his side. But there are those old men from the Expat Bar ... a police officer who's a friend, even if a disgraced one ... and some women and "ladyboys" who recognize that Poke himself is worth saving.

The people who come through for Poke do so because he's earned their loyalty. Most of all, this time, the heroes include his own daughter, who's been through a lot herself. Astute readers will notice Miaow's steady progress toward taking responsibility for resisting evil and asserting her own amazing future -- so the book's ending is especially satisfying, as well as surprising in the best of ways.

I do hope this isn't the "final" Poke Rafferty book, because this stretch of intense and suspenseful thrillers set in a wickedly complex and dangerous Thai city has given me a really good ride! Keep them rolling, Tim Hallinan and Soho Crime ... please.

[PS - if you're a reader who stays WAY away from thrillers that include sexual abuse, you have my sympathy ... and my assurance that even though that's a major crime in the Poke Rafferty series, it's portrayed as a justice issue, not as porn. Safe to read these, truly.]

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