Carolyn Wheat says, in her excellent book How to Write Killer Fiction, “The central question of the mystery is: Who did it?…The central question of the suspense novel is: Will our hero survive?” Using this yardstick, I find that the last two books I’ve read are novels of suspense. Another way to decide between the two genres is to note how fiercely I gripped the books as I read both them, how tightly I was glued to my chair as I read them, and how hard I found it to stop at the end of each cliff-hanging chapter.
I have just finished reading Timothy Hallinan’s The Queen of Patpong (Morrow/Harper 2010), and I finished with a fast-beating heart and a feeling of relief and regret. Regret that I was saying goodbye (for now) to the friends I’d made while reading the book; relief that they, against tough odds, survived.
The book is set in Thailand. Parts take place in a small northern village and on the tourist destination island of Phuket; but most of the action happens in the noisy, vibrant, crowded city of Bangkok, and most of the Bangkok action takes place in the red-light district of Patpong, where the music is loud, the lights are low, the smell of street food and beer and human sweat is intense, and the women—some of them mere girls—are made up, charming, alluring, hard at work and at risk.
The heroine of The Queen of Patpong is a former prostitute named Rose, who now devotes her time and her business acumen to rescuing young girls from danger. How Rose got into the sex industry, how she thrived there and became “the Queen,” and how she barely survived (there’s a pun in there; please ignore it) make up the central story of this novel. It’s told in the past tense, and it fills the middle third of the book. I won’t tell you more than to warn you to fasten your seat belt.
Surrounding this story are Parts One and Three, told in the rapid-paced present tense. The present is full of the past, which not only haunts the present…it stalks the present. Rose lives with her farang husband, Poke Rafferty, a travel writer, and their adopted teenage daughter, Miaow. They are a happy family. Poke has his writing, Rose has her business, and Miaow has the role of Ariel in her school’s presentation of The Tempest. All is well. Well, not quite. Before the end of the second short chapter of this book, the past shows up in a restaurant where the happy family is eating. The past comes in the form of a man named Horner and his sidekick, John. These two mean business. And Poke is as determined to protect his family as these two beasts are to destroy it. There will be hell to pay.
Hell happens. On roller blades. I won’t tell you a thing more, except to say you can forget about roller blades; I made that up. Read and find out.
The Queen of Patpong is about prostitution, corruption, revenge, psychopathic sexuality, and danger turned up to nine. It’s also, believe it or not, a tender novel about love, family, friendship, marriage, and loyalty. This book is a tempest of love and death.
Larry Karp's A Perilous Conception (Poisoned Pen Press, 2011) is classified by the publisher as a mystery. And yes, there are a couple of murders in the book, and one of them involves a puzzle and some detection, but the mystery element of the book is almost a subplot. Mainly, this novel is a nonstop thriller, a cat-and-mouse detective yarn, and the yarn is twisted and tangled and hard to put down. The story is told in two voices, and those voices are as different as can be, yet both of them are convincing. The interplay between these two voices, and the characters behind them, is what propels the novel deeper and deeper into the tangled web of deception. Larry Karp has created a pair of tenacious adversaries, and the back-and-forth POV makes for great drama.
In one corner is Dr. Colin Sanford, an OB/GYN in Emerald, Washington (a city that looks a lot like Seattle). He is also a wizard at laparoscopy, and he and his geneticist partner are secretly on the fast track to fame, with plans to be the first to successfully engineer in vitro fertilization. Sanford is a polished, conscientious doctor who charms his patients and appears to have no more important agenda than their medical welfare. Inside that slick presentation is a greedy egomaniac, who will stop at nothing, and will be stopped by nobody in his pursuit of fame and fortune. And then, within this slimeball, there's yet another Colin Sanford, and I won't describe that one. It's enough to say Colin Sanford is a complicated doc.
Sanford's nemesis, Bernie Baumgartner, is all cop. He's also all business, and part bulldog. At the expense of his marriage and of his job, he won't rest until he ties up all the loose ends of what went wrong. Baumgartner is a charmer in his own gruff way. He has a droll, hardboiled way with words and a disregard for baloney as well as any polite protocol that might come between him and solving the case. He also has a wonderful sidekick, a picklock named Iggy, who helps Baumgartner circumvent the formalities of proper police procedure.
There's a lot of crime in this book, and a lot of fascinating science, and a payload of entertainment. And damned fine writing.
As I have been wont to do of late, I close with a 55-word story. It’s based on “The Lady, or the Tiger?”, a story by Frank Stockton written in 1882. You’ll note that it’s a suspense story, although unlike Stockton I don’t leave the reader entirely in suspense at the end.
The Second Course...
The unfaithful slave was ordered to choose between two doors. Behind one, the girl he loved; behind the other, a ravenous tiger.
Hearing growls behind the left-hand door, he opened the right. Entered.
The room was empty.
There was no partition between the two chambers.
Next door, a tiger was finishing his appetizer.
By the way, I just had a 55-word story published on-line at Postcard Shorts. It’s not exactly a murder mystery or a suspense story, but it’s about matricide.