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By Timothy Hallinan

William Morrow, 2009 ($24.99)
ISBN-10: 0061672238
ISBN-13: 978-0-06-167223-1

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

After a poker game goes terribly wrong, travel writer Poke Rafferty gets two offers he can't refuse. He either has to write a biography of one of the players, Mr. Pan, a wealthy and powerful Thai businessman, using information supplied by the man's many enemies, or he has to write a glowing tribute to the man, leaving out all the sordid details and disreputable deeds of the subject. Poke would rather do neither, but that's not an option. If he makes the first choice, Pan's friends will kill him and his family. If he chooses the second, the results will be the same. He gets busy trying to figure out a third option. He asks his friend Arthit, who got him into the game, for help. Arthit is a good cop with some powerful connections, but he's dealing with his own personal tragedy.

Poke's not a hero, a tough guy, or a detective, he's just a writer who deeply loves his family. When Arthit tells him there's no way he can help, Poke asks him "Should I just roll over and die? Arthit says "It would save you a lot of effort." With those encouraging words, Poke goes for door number four. Can love, his quick wits, and some help from his friends get him through this? His friends would seem to have no power: street kids, the down and out, the poor and the downtrodden, but with the right motivation, that could just be enough. One character from an earlier book makes a reappearance, stronger and more civilized, and his fans will welcome his return. Poke certainly does.

Thailand is a beautiful country with gracious, friendly people, but the government is so corrupt it would make a durian smell sweet by comparison. Pan has broken the unwritten but deeply entrenched rules: all leaders are to come from the elite Thai-Chinese upper crust, who are allowed to trample lesser mortals into the dust if necessary to keep order. Pan is a common villager who climbed out of the muck, using his intelligence and bull-headed determination to become one of the richest men in the country. His powerful and vicious opponents are determined to take him down, and Poke and his family are stuck between a sharp rock and a very hard place.

This is the strongest, and perhaps darkest, of the Poke Rafferty series. Hallinan's writing just keeps getting better. His characters are flesh and blood, the Thai scenery and atmosphere, both exquisite and abysmal, can be seen, felt, and smelled, and the tension never lets up.

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