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By Tim Hallinan

William Morrow/an Imprint of HarperCollins August, 2010 ($24.99 )
ISBN-10: 0061672262
ISBN-13: 978-0-06-167226-2

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

Patpong Road... every U.S. military man who served in the Vietnam War knows about Patpong Road, and the red light district centered around it, as do the businessmen who flocked in after the war, and the Germans and Japanese and others who indulge in sex tourism. Garishly lighted and decorated massage parlors and bars offer the discerning seeker anything his (usually it's a he) heart desires. Beautiful girls, some very young, most very beautiful, make the customer feel like he's handsome and desirable, as long as the price is right. But what price do the girls pay? Where do they come from, and why do they end up selling themselves to the highest bidder, no matter how twisted that person might be? Rose Rafferty, now happily married to writer Poke Rafferty and adoptive mother to former street kid Miaow, was one of those girls, and this is her story.

Poke and Miaow know Rose was a bar girl and dancer before she left the life to run a cleaning business that gives others like her a chance to make a new start. Poke loves Rose, and believes her past is just that -- past. Miaow, who has re-named herself Mia to better fit in with the students at the elite private school she attends, is a little embarrassed about it, and doesn't want the other students and teachers to find out about what her new mother used to do. All in all, they're happy, well on the way to becoming a "normal" family. One night, as the family is having a casual meal, talking about their respective days, everything changes. A man, a tall farang, American, perhaps, walks up to their table, greets Rose like a long lost friend, then turns hostile. After Rose shows him how she feels about him, he leaves, but promises that he's not done with her yet. In answer to Poke's question about who the man is, she states "Someone I thought I'd killed."

This brings the evening to an abrupt halt. Back home, Rose seems turned to stone, unwilling to say anything other than that his name is Howard Horner and that he is a very bad man who can, and, given the chance, will, hurt any of them. She doesn't think he can find them, but he does, and soon he is toying with them, dragging out his cat and mouse game to its inevitable end. Poke calls in his policeman friend Arthit, in part because he needs his help, in part because Arthit is still in deep mourning for his wife and needs something to live for. Rose is still reluctant to talk about Horner and his role in her past.

Finally, after Poke barely survives an encounter with the tall man's friend John, dodging and darting through Bangkok's nightmare traffic, bringing home Pim, a young girl he'd accidently injured during the chase, Rose decides it's time to talk. She tells the girl, who has only been in Bangkok for two weeks, what she can expect if she remains in the sex business. She is brutal, cruel, and heartless, frightening the girl until she begins crying hysterically. She knows how the story will turn out because it is her story. Once she was a young village girl named Kwan, a misfit, too tall, but so smart the village teacher arranges to pay her family so she can stay in school. Her father had other ideas, but he was just one of many who used her, people who manhandled and manipulated and sometimes, rarely, treated her kindly as she was transformed into Rose, the Queen of Patpong. Rose's story is repeated hundreds of times a day, as helpless girls are sold by their own parents or kidnapped, or lured into the sex trade by promises of riches and glamour and the chance to help their families survive. Hallinan does a masterful job of depicting the truth behind the glitter and neon lights of the sordid streets of Patpong.

There are some nail-biting scenes -- I could almost smell the exhaust and hear the squealing brakes and the sound of horns when Poke and John are dashing through the crowded, insane Bangkok traffic, and Poke and Arthit learn that Howard is indeed a very bad man, that he is probably responsible for several unsolved murders over two decades, and he will stop at nothing to harm the girl who got away. There are also sweet moments when the little family is just being, as Miaow says, "normal." Miaow/Mia has chopped off her long raven hair and colored it orange, supposedly to enhance her role as Ariel in her school version of The Tempest, but also to show a little pre-teen rebellion. Poke is working with the teacher to adapt the play, and he is pleased when her teacher praises Mia's abilities. Even the scene after Rose tells her story, when the whole family has a meltdown, is twistedly funny, as beer bottles are smashed, stoves are shoved around, and paper bags are mercilessly destroyed.

With every book in the series, I think Hallinan has written his best work. Then the next one comes out, and he outdoes himself once again. THE QUEEN OF PATPONG really is his best work -- so far.

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