THE QUEEN OF PATPONG, A POKE RAFFERTY THRILLER is a title that is something of a misnomer. It is the fourth book in the Poke Rafferty series by Timothy Hallinan, but while it is definitely a thriller it isn't really a Poke Rafferty book. The book belongs to Rose, Poke's wife, a former dancer in a bar, whose outstanding beauty made her the queen of the red -light district of Bangkok. And that isn't quite right either. Would any woman be happy with a title that describes "what" she is when the "who" she is goes so far beyond that sad bit of geography that has come to define, in many minds, Bangkok?
Rose is extraordinary and so is her story. Both owe their existence to the great talent of the author who has written a book that defines the experience of the brutally poor young women who are forced to sell their beauty and, in many unfortunate cases, their souls so that they can support their families and perhaps, hopefully, keep their younger sisters from having to make the same deal with the devil.
Hallinan choreographs chapter one so that readers who are just discovering the series with THE QUEEN OF PATPONG have enough information to understand the underside of Bangkok. For those who are familiar with the characters, chapter one is funny and a bit reassuring after BREATHING WATER. Chapter two lulls readers as they go to dinner with Poke, Rose, and Miaow who is caught up in her role as Ariel in her school's production of THE TEMPEST. It is a glimpse into the life of a happy family until, suddenly, it isn't. A man approaches and places his palms flat on the table in front of Rose. Rose is terrified. Rose was sure he was dead because she was sure she had killed him.
Howard Horner is a nightmare from Rose's past. The next day, when Poke discovers evidence that Horner knows where they live and when Miaow spots Horner's associate, John, as she and Poke are returning from the home of Miaow's teacher, the stakes have been upped and Poke has to become proactive in protecting his family.
Poke leaves Miaow in the cab and follows John to a the Beer Garden, where he runs, literally, into Pim, a girl from the north who is following the same path from poverty as Rose did. When Poke asks Pim to see if John is inside, things go badly, and Pim becomes a hostage. Poke takes care of John; Poke takes Pim home. Emotions are unbridled, glass breaks, doors slam, voices are raised, tears flow and, because Pim reminds Rose of herself, the girl whose name was Kwan, Rose talks about her past to save the girl and to save her family.
It is in this part of the book that Hallinan's writing soars. As Rose tells her story, she disappears and becomes Kwan, the very tall village girl called, disparagingly, Stork. Kwan is beautiful although she does not know it. She is very bright, something she does know. Her teacher and a man from the Children's Scholarship Fund come to her home to offer her father money to allow Kwan to stay in school, to even move on to college. But her father refuses and with that refusal Kwan realizes that he has already sold her to a brothel in Bangkok. Rather than becoming a vitual slave, Kwan decides to leave town quietly with Nana, a village girl who has been working on Patpong. Rose continues her story....
When she is finished, Poke knows that Rose and Miaow will not be safe as long as Howard Horner is free to roam Bangkok. His claim that Rose broke a promise is true and for a man with Horner's ego, she needs to pay for that with her life. Poke brings Pim along as he hides his family in Arthit's house. Once the women are safe, Poke begins to put into action a plan borrowed from THE TEMPEST.
The author makes frequent references to THE TEMPEST throughout the novel. The first section is entitled "Caliban" after the half-man, half-monster in the play. Horner is Caliban, who believes himself the victim of gross injustice. The second section, the story of Kwan/Rose is entitled "Sea Change". In the play, Shakespeare writes: "Of his bones are coral made:/ Those are pearls that were his eyes:/Nothing of him that doth fade/But doth suffer a sea change." A sea change is transformative, it alters the nature of the person who undergoes the stress that creates the change. Kwan becomes Rose. The simple, innocent child of poverty becomes the queen of Patpong Road. The last section is "The Storm". In the play it is a storm, the tempest, that throws the characters onto the island. In Hallinan's hands, the tempest created by Horner seems at first to wreak havoc on the family bonds that have been forged among Rose, Poke, and Miaow. But the sea change applies to the family, not just to Rose. At the end, there are no longer any doubts.
THE QUEEN OF PATPONG seems to be transformative for the author as well. For the nearly one hundred and forty pages that are Rose's story, Hallinan is writing from a woman's perspective and the result is natural, flowing. I read it, it seemed, without taking a breath.
In the end, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG is laid to rest. In the telling of her story, Rose proves to herself, and to Miaow, that the bar girl no longer exists, perhaps she never did. Rose was a victim of circumstances and the sins of others. Because Rose had to live the life of the bar girl on Patpong Road, Miaow will not have to do so. The street child has been saved because the bar girl had the strength to bring about her own salvation.
This isn't a revelation to Poke. He already knew the woman she is.
If THE QUEEN OF PATPONG is made into a movie (and a really good movie it would be) the climax will leave audiences cheering."