THE SOLITARY MAN incorporates two parallel plots, either of which could stand on its own, but which combined yield a sum greater than the parts.
The IRA has branched out into drug smuggling - so long as the goods don't come home to Ireland. One of the lads, Ray Harrigan, is arrested in Thailand and thrown into prison to rot. The IRA wants its boyo freed and impresses that fact on Billy Winter, the organizer of the drug deal gone sour. If Billy wants to live, he's got to conjure Ray's escape.
Tim Carver is the DEA's local rep in Bangkok. His boss, the number two man in the agency, Jake Gregory, is under pressure from the U.S. Vice-President to bring down one of the most successful and ruthless drug lords in the Golden Triangle, Zhou Yuanyi. It was Zhou that sent to the States the heroin that killed the Veep's son. Now, Jake orders Tim to locate the elusive Zhou and his jungle headquarters preparatory to a reprisal strike.
The problems facing both Winter and Carver ultimately put Warren Hastings between two rocks and a hard place.
Seven years previous, Chris Hutchinson made a daring escape out of Her Majesty's maximum security prison at Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight, in the process of which it looked to the authorities as if Hutch had died. But Chris, with a new identity as Hastings, has built a new life and a successful dog training business in Hong Kong. One day, a fellow prisoner pal from Parkhurst, Winter, shows up seeking a favor; he wants escape artist Hutch to spring Harrigan from the Thai hell hole known as Klong Prem prison - a real place nicknamed the "Bangkok Hilton". (And Hutch, old mate, it's nothing personal, you understand, but, if you don't cooperate, your son back in the UK might come to some hurt.) Then, Carver shows up and offers Hutch a deal he dare not refuse. Some days, it just doesn't pay to get out of bed.
And then, just as his life couldn't get more complicated, Warren's head kennel maid in his doggie biz, Chau-ling, who secretly loves her boss and whose Dad is one of the richest and most powerful men in Hong Kong, decides to stick her nose in. Now make that Hastings between three rocks and a hard place.
THE SOLITARY MAN is one of Stephen Leather's best offerings because of his skillful intertwining of the various subplots. The author also provides one of the best descriptions of life inside a Thai prison that I've ever read. (Ok, ok, so it's the only one that I've ever come across, but it perhaps makes a Soviet-era Siberian gulag look like a holiday camp in comparison - at least the latter provided a lot of fresh air and outdoor exercise.) Via email, Leather told me that he based his description on the personal experience of an acquaintance.
The high caliber of Stephen's thrillers is largely due to the author's on site research. An old Southeast Asia hand, Leather is currently off to Cambodia. Whatever new novel results, I'm in.