On my blog, Mysterious Orientations, I recently posted a photo of myself receiving an intravenous drip of antibiotics in a Japanese hospital, and at the same time devouring Nevada Barr’s latest thriller, Burn. I’m happy to report that I recovered fully—and I’m glad I had some good reading material! Burn features veteran park ranger Anna Pigeon, this time on location (and on indefinite leave) in post-Katrina New Orleans. Anna’s inactive status does nothing to keep her out of harm’s way, however, and thanks to a chance encounter with a diffident and androgynous Goth youth, she finds herself dragged into one of the most harrowing cases of her career. It seems that a number of prominent Big Easy socialites are sexually exploiting children, and the police seem to be not only looking the other way, but perhaps even actively protecting the organization of pedophiles. And somewhere at the edge of the French Quarter, a quaint antebellum home has been recast as a den of unspeakable evil, where kids as young as toddlers are repeatedly subjected to rape and torture. Barr pulls no punches in her representation of the “game rooms,” and the denouement is certainly as violent as it is ultimately gratifying. That said, Burn is Barr’s most tautly crafted book in quite some time; if you can stand the graphic imagery, you are in for a first-rate thriller.

For a brief moment at the opening of Ridley Pearson’s In Harm’s Way, photographer Fiona Kenshaw harbors a secret—but that secret is about to be revealed in a front-page newspaper article about her valor when Fiona heroically rescues a small child. Although she leaned heavily upon her friend, Sun Valley sheriff Walt Fleming, to block publication of her photo, both of their efforts were for naught, and Fiona’s past is about to catch up with her—with potentially devastating results. As she is on the verge of coming clean with Fleming, Fiona is assaulted, and her resolve falters. Meanwhile, Fleming fields a phone call from Seattle detective Lou Boldt, who is investigating a murder with possible Sun Valley implications—implications which may well involve Fiona, and reveal her in a much less flattering light than the recent newspaper article. The plotting is tight, the requisite scarlet herrings show up in biblical multitudes and the resolution will surprise all but the most hardcore genre aficionados.

Mark and Claire Wallace, the unlikely protagonists of Lee Vance’s latest thriller, The Garden of Betrayal, had what most would describe as a fine life: a good marriage, well-paying jobs and a pair of smart and personable children. Then, in the space of an evening, their world crashes down around them when their 12-year-old son is abducted. Fast forward seven years; every lead has been a dead end, and the Wallaces have, to some degree or another, resigned themselves to never seeing their son again. Then, out of the blue, a new lead opens up, and Mark and Claire allow themselves a glimmer of hope; somehow, the abduction may be related to Mark’s job as consultant to a global oil concern, a syndicate perhaps on the verge of creating a stranglehold on world energy supplies. The cast of supporting characters is complex and well-drawn, and the tension is palpable throughout. Vance’s debut thriller, Restitution, was a tour-de-force, and The Garden of Betrayal will certainly cement his fast-growing reputation.

I thought I might run out of superlatives the first time I reviewed a Timothy Hallinan book, The Fourth Watcher. Phrases like “wickedly atmospheric” peppered the text, and the book was selected as my no-contest Mystery of the Month pick. A year later, Hallinan was in the winner’s circle once again, with a follow-up novel, Breathing Water. His latest, The Queen of Patpong, does nothing to break the streak; it is, in fact, the most intimate and personal portrayal of gonzo travel writer Poke Rafferty and his family to date. In some ways, Rafferty takes a back seat this time to his wife Rose, a one-time bar girl in Bangkok’s infamous Patpong district, haunted by the reappearance of a man she thought long dead—a man, in fact, she thought (and hoped) she had killed. Rose’s complex history is laid bare in The Queen of Patpong, her deepest secrets revealed to her husband and daughter; from her humble beginnings as a Thai village schoolgirl to her ascendance to undisputed queen of the Patpong bar girls, Rose’s story unfolds, by turns humorous, frightening and infinitely sad, yet ultimately uplifting. Oh, and the final showdown is unlike anything I have ever run across in suspense fiction, and that’s all I’m going to say about that! The Queen of Patpong is by every measure the best of an excellent series, making Hallinan the only three-for-three Mystery of the Month winner to date.


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