My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Phillip "Poke" Rafferty is a half Irish, half Filipino American ex-pat travel writer living in Bangkok. He has a series of travel books called Looking for Trouble in..., as in Looking for Trouble in Shanghai or Looking for Trouble in the Philippines. When he came to look for trouble in Bangkok, he lost his heart and he stayed.
He fell in love with Bangkok, but he also fell in love with Rose, an ex go-go dancer/prostitute, now turned entrepreneur who is trying to set up a cleaning business. But he really lost his heart to Miaow, an eight-year-old homeless girl, a wary and damaged street child whom he has taken into his life and whom he wants to adopt. He is trying to establish this blended family of himself, Rose, and Miaow.
Poke makes a little money with his travel books and articles but not enough to make the adoption of Miaow possible. He needs money to grease the wheels of Thai bureaucracy.
His policeman friend, Arthit, offers him a lifeline when he recommends him to an Australian woman who is looking for her uncle who has disappeared in Bangkok. He tells the woman that Poke might be able to find her uncle. She's willing to pay good money for his services. So begins Poke's career as a detective.
His investigation into the life of the beloved uncle leads him to some truly horrifying discoveries.The sex trade, especially the use of children in that trade, is a well-known feature of life in Bangkok, but it is impossible to imagine - and I don't want to imagine - the depths of depravity that are reached by the practitioners and customers of this trade. (In fact, my eyes just glided right over some of the passages describing that "business.") And Poke finds that the kindly old uncle is up to his testicles in it.
A few weeks before he disappeared, the uncle had hired a new maid, the inscrutably named Doughnut, who has also disappeared. Poke believes the maid is the key to the conundrum and he begins following her trail.
He finds the agency that sent Doughnut to the uncle and discovers that before working for him, she had worked for a very rich and reclusive woman. When he visits her, he sees a cruel and terrifying old woman, Madame Wing, who claims to have had something stolen from her for which the thief is now trying to extort money. She wants to hire Poke to find the lost merchandise and return it. She is willing to pay him handsomely.
Meanwhile, his life at home has become a bit more complicated with the arrival of a friend of Miaow's, a troubled and filthy street urchin called Superman. At Miaow's urging, he reluctantly agrees to take the child into his home - temporarily.
Gradually, these seemingly disparate situations and events begin to converge and Poke begins to understand something essential about Thai culture and about Buddhism: All things are connected.
I found reading this book a bit of a slog at first, but then something clicked and I began to get into it - to empathize with Poke and his somewhat stumbling attempts to understand the culture around him and especially to empathize with the children who are the victims of man's ultimate inhumanity and yet who are tough survivors and full of possibilities. I especially found the character of Rose and the philosophy that has sustained her to be intriguing. She is someone that I like very much.
In fact, all of the main characters here are appealing. Timothy Hallinan has done a good job of revealing them to us, I think. They are people with whom I wouldn't mind spending more time.
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