BOOK WORLD

Justin Peacock's "Blind Man's Alley" and Timothy Hallinan's "Queen of Patpong"

By Patrick Anderson
Monday, August 2, 2010

BLIND MAN'S ALLEY

By Justin Peacock

Doubleday. 465 pp. $26.95

THE QUEEN OF PATPONG

By Timothy Hallinan

Morrow. 312 pp. $24.99

Justin Peacock's first novel, "A Cure for Night," published two years ago, was the hard-edged story of a young lawyer trying to choose between the grubby life of a public defender in Brooklyn and selling his soul for riches at a big Manhattan firm. It won praise and was nominated for an Edgar award. Peacock's new novel, "Blind Man's Alley," explores the same issues but is longer, more complex and more ambitious than its predecessor. Peacock is a lawyer-turned-novelist who wants to show us Manhattan's interlocking empires of law, politics, journalism, real estate, banking, law enforcement and organized crime. It's an angry portrait of Big Apple corruption and the efforts of two young people, a lawyer and a journalist, to resist its embrace.

Duncan Riley comes from a working-class background but made his way to Harvard Law and a white-shoe Manhattan firm, where he is about to become a partner. At the outset, he's working with a senior partner on two cases, one large and the other seemingly small. The large one involves protecting Roth Properties from liability for the death of three workers during the construction of a condominium tower. The Roth family includes Simon, an overbearing, 70-year-old billionaire; his son Jeremy, who's a drunken fool; and his daughter Leah, who's cold, calculating and likely to inherit the family empire. Leah rather casually seduces Duncan. He can't afford to say no to such an important client, and they both know that even in bed she's the boss.

In the other case, Duncan is representing, pro bono, a young Hispanic who's accused of murdering a security guard at the housing project where he lives. The lawyer becomes convinced of the young man's innocence and resists the demands of his senior partner to arrange a plea bargain that will send the youth to prison. Soon it seems that Duncan must choose between his duty to his client and the partnership that is within his grasp. Moreover, the two cases prove to be connected in ways that involve high-level corruption and even murder. A tough investigative reporter named Candace Snow is digging into all this. She and Duncan pool their resources and soon risk losing their jobs and perhaps their lives.

As this saga plays out, Peacock paints a caustic portrait of life at the top. Leah, the heiress, dismisses one competitor thusly: "The Donald's a haircut and a franchising plan, not a real developer." She also tells Duncan, "Did you know that back in the 1930s the rule of thumb on skyscraper construction was that one worker would die for each floor built?" Candace's editor, taking her off the Roth story, says, "I get that it sucks, but there're a lot of other dirty fish in this slimy sea of ours."

The novel's panoramic look at New York recalls Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities." Its portrait of a young lawyer disillusioned by the realities of practicing law echoes some of John Grisham's novels, although Peacock is a better writer than Grisham. Peacock's publisher is comparing him to Scott Turow, but that's a stretch. Peacock's book is intelligent and engrossing, but it lacks Turow's depth. His characters are vivid but a little slick, and his story's ending is a bit too easy. Still, "Blind Man's Alley" is a superior legal thriller by a writer with talent to burn.

Timothy Hallinan's "The Queen of Patpong" is also a study in urban corruption but on a smaller scale. The city is Bangkok, and the corruption is that of its thriving prostitution trade. Poke Rafferty, a travel writer, is married to Rose, a Thai who once worked in Patpong, a celebrated red-light district. Poke and Rose have built a good life for themselves. He recently published a successful book. Rose operates a house-cleaning service staffed by ex-prostitutes. Their adopted daughter Miaow, once a street child, is starring as Ariel in a school production of "The Tempest."

Trouble arrives in the person of Horner, a soldier of fortune who was formerly Rose's lover. They parted badly, and now he's back seeking revenge. It becomes clear that he's a psychopath and a killer. At this point, the plot is a familiar one: A decent man must protect his family from a monster. (John D. MacDonald's "The Executioners," filmed as "Cape Fear," is a masterpiece of this genre.)

"The Queen of Patpong" abruptly shifts gears when Rose decides to give her husband and daughter the full story of her early life. Her 130-page narrative tells you far more than you ever expected to know about the wages of sin in Thailand. Many young Thai women enter prostitution out of economic necessity, but Hallinan focuses on those who are forced into it by beatings or by being "sold" by their fathers to traffickers. We see Rose as a shy, beautiful teenager who loses her virginity to a crooked police captain but goes on to be the "queen of Patpong" before she escapes to a better life. Finally, when her story ends, we return to Poke's confrontation with the psychopath. Ultimately, the inside look at Thailand's vast prostitution industry is more real, and more interesting, than the clash between husband and monster.

Anderson regularly reviews thrillers and mysteries for The Post.


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