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A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART
By Timothy Hallinan
William Morrow, 2007 ($24.95)
Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
Travel writer "Poke" Rafferty has achieved some modest success through a series of travel guides that appeal to the young and the reckless. After completing his research for the latest, Looking for Trouble in Thailand, he decides to stick around Bangkok for awhile, sharing his apartment and his heart with ex-bar girl Rose and Miaow (the Thai word for "cat"), a tough as nails street urchin he wants to adopt.
His good friend Arthit, one of the few uncorrupted Bangkok cops, asks him to help an Australian woman find her missing uncle, Claus Ulrich. It seems easy enough, but when he uncovers some very nasty secrets in Uncle Clausís apartment he has second thoughts. Claus was not a part of the group of ex-patriots who hang around the red light district of the city, guys Poke refers to as "sexpatriots." They are for the most part genial losers and slackers who mean no harm. There is a much darker side of the sex trade in Thailand and Cambodia, and the author unflinchingly brings it to light.
Miaow convinces Poke, much against his better judgment, to take in another street urchin, a filthy, feral boy who once saved her life. His street name is Superman, and he has survived such horrors that every do-gooder in town tells Poke heís damaged beyond redemption. Miaow and Rose disagree, and gradually the boy begins to trust the members of this unusual little family.
Poke, whose success as a sort-of private detective has gained him some attention, is hired by a mega-rich, haughty and hateful old Chinese lady to find something of great value to her, as well as the thief who took it. She offers an unbelievable amount of money for the job, but when Poke discovers what the "treasure" is and why it was taken, he has to decide if the fee is worth it. Both the thief and Madame Wing are connected to the genocide in Cambodia during Pol Potís reign, another ugly part of the history of Southeast Asia. Nothing is black and white in Pokeís world; there are shades of gray in the innocent and the guilty, and sometimes itís hard to tell which is which.
Thailand is a country of contradictions, a beautiful land with gentle, friendly people, a Third World nation with corruption in both high and low places and a record of very ugly and harmful exploitation of women and children in the sex trade industry. The author has painted a true picture, powerfully and honestly, but also with understanding and empathy. This is a book that is hard to read, but at the same time hard to put down.
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