BY NICO VREELAND
[2011 Edgar Award nominee for Best Novel]
2010, William Morrow
Filed under: Thriller
Get a copy at Powell’s
The Queen of Patpong opens with a marvelous set piece in which a tall white man and a kind-hearted Thai cop play out a ruse designed to scare the bejeezus out of an underage Bangkok prostitute, to make her give up the bar-girl life and run back to her upcountry village.
The tall white man turns out to be our hero, travel writer (wha? I know, it’s weird) Poke Rafferty. The set piece, in a mere twelve pages, establishes Poke as a complex hero—charitable but still cynical—and also paints a sharp, realistic portrait of both the Bangkok in which we find ourselves, and the bar girls who are almost synonymous with its name. Along the way, Hallinan delivers a heaping helping of nail-biting suspense.
It’s a shame, because the rest of the novel simply can’t live up to that first chapter.
In the next scene, Poke eats dinner at a restaurant with his wife, an ex-prostitute herself, and their daughter, a one-time street kid the couple adopted. In the middle of their meal, an enormous, scary American barges in and tells Poke’s wife, Rose, that he’s going to kill her. Poke stands up to defend her honor and Rose rips the tablecloth off and causes a huge, distracting scene. Eventually the big man leaves.
“‘Who the fuck was that?'” Rafferty says. In a big, chapter-ending, underlined moment, Rose says, “‘Someone I thought I’d killed.'”
The rest of the novel disappoints. Not so much because of what it tries (and largely succeeds) to do, which is tell the honest story of how an innocent village girl becomes a Bangkok prostitute. But Patpong fails as a thriller because Rose’s big revelation sharply limits the heights of suspense it can reach.
Most of the next two hundred pages, most of the novel, concerns Rose’s early life. Her father sells her to a whorehouse, her sister sells her to a slightly better one. She faces tough choices. She hates hooking, but can’t get away from it. She has it better than many. And then a man comes along and he turns out to be horrible and Rose thinks she kills him. All of that we know, from Rose’s general attitude toward her past, and from her outburst at the end of the key chapter.
Patpong is not a mystery, I understand that. It says “thriller” right on the cover, but even a thriller needs suspense. The story of a Bangkok prostitute probably shouldn’t be a thriller at all, or at least it should be one in which someone is legitimately in danger, at some point, ever.
We know Rose never gets AIDS; we know she survives whatever the villain tries to do to her. We know, because this is not the last Poke Rafferty book, that Poke will eventually best him. With those boundaries in place, the story is just too damn dull.
However: along the way are some truly badass scenes, and the books ends with a toe-curling climax. Hallinan can write action scenes like few others in the business, and his prose is never bad. Here’s an example, just a regular ol’ description:
The uniform sets off broad shoulders and narrow hips while also making way, with a certain amount of strain, for a small but ambitious potbelly. There is nothing soft about the potbelly: it looks like something to avoid bumping your head on. He glances at a heavy steel watch on a too-large band, flips it around from the front of his wrist to the back, and then checks it again as he realizes he’s forgotten to look at the time.
This is A-level work for a thrillerist, but he simply can’t make the extended trip back in time as compelling as his brouhahas. And though that blockbuster ending is one of the best scenes I’ve read in any Edgar book this year, one scene can’t make a novel.
Ultimately, this is an admirable project, but poorly designed and executed as a thriller. I’ll be waiting till it says “a Poke Rafferty mystery” to pick up my next Hallinan, but I’ll definitely be picking one up.
Similar reads: The Godfather of Kathmandu, by John Burdett, and The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens, are both disappointing thrillers in this same vein. Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, is what a thriller should be.
Edgar impact: Hallinan has obvious talent and shows flashes of true greatness. Unfortunately the premise of this novel holds no mystery and gives away far too much potential suspense. Never felt any danger. It’s a shame, but this book shouldn’t win an award. I will read more Hallinan, though.