Breathing Water

I used to think that John Burdett's terrific books (Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts) about Royal Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, the only practicing Buddhist on the police force, were all I needed to know about the darker, sadder side of that popular tourist site. Then I began to read Hallinan's books about American travel writer Poke Rafferty, who lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife, Rose, and their adopted daughter, who calls herself Miaow. Last year's The Fourth Watcher was his best yet -- but his new one, Breathing Water, tops it. Hallinan's books are more ferocious than Burdett's, and he excels at creating truly frightening villains -- in this case, a gross but oddly touching multimillionaire, Khun Pan, the richest man in Thailand. The book begins with a high-stakes poker game, set up as a sting by Poke's cop friend, Arthit, against a couple of rich cheaters. But nobody is expecting the Big Guy (as Pan is called) to show up. "The three millionaires don't look alike, but they share the glaze that money brings, a sheen as thin and golden as the melted sugar on a doughnut," Rafferty says. Poke beats Pan badly and wins as a prize the chance to write the multimillionaire's much-sought-after biography. But many of Pan's rivals don't want the book to come out at all, especially just before an upcoming election. On the other side are rivals who want to expose Pan's darker secrets. Rafferty is in a very dangerous position. As Arthit says, "If it would clarify your situation to think about it visually, then imagine this: You're at the bottom of the Chao Phyra, wandering around on the riverbed without a map, and breathing water."

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