A few pages into this book and I already knew that Ladarat Patalung would become one of my favourite series detective characters, and that I’ll be keeping an eye out for further titles in the Ethical Chiang Mai Detective Agency series.
Nurse ethicist Ladarat Patalung, who works at a hospital in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is pulled into three different cases. In the main mystery, a woman’s husband dies in Ladarat’s hospital and someone recognizes her as having taken a different husband to another hospital and that other husband also dying. Detective Wiriya Mookjai needs Ladarat’s help to investigate the potential of a serial killer.
The other two cases have more to do with Ladarat’s job as a nurse and an ethicist rather than with murder. In one, an American tourist is on the brink of death after an accident with an elephant, and Dr. Suphit Jainukul, the director of the ICU, needs Ladarat’s help in breaking the bad news to his family. In the other, a man mysteriously appears each day in the hospital waiting room, yet runs away whenever someone tries to talk to him. Who is the man, what does he want, and, more importantly for Dr. Jainukul, how can Ladarat get him to leave the hospital in time for an upcoming major inspection?
I love the character of Ladarat, a middle aged woman who genuinely cares about doing the right thing and who is positively geeking out over discovering her talent for detective work. She’s a modest, unassuming woman who concurs with her late husband’s assessment of her “coat hanger” figure, and notes that her “oversized glasses and hair pinned tightly in a bun admittedly did not contribute to a figure of surpassing beauty.” [p. 5] She works long hours, owns a cat named Maewfawbaahn (does anyone know if this means anything?), and, having no talent or time to cook, often orders her meals from a corner stall. In other words, she is an ordinary woman, not super brilliant so much as super empathetic, and it’s her genuine interest in people and ability to place herself in their shoes that helps her solve her cases.
I also love the developing attraction between her and Wiriya, who is described as “solid and comforting, with close-cropped graying hair, a slow smile and gentle manners that would not have been out of place in a Buddhist monk.” I love the quiet nature of their chemistry, and the fact that much of their attraction to each other is built on respect for the other’s abilities. Wiriya often comments on the acuity of Ladarat’s observations, and Ladarat clearly admires Wiriya’s skills as a detective. Even their physical attraction to each other isn’t built on Ladarat suddenly wearing better fitting clothes or applying makeup, but rather on features that perhaps other people wouldn’t pay attention to.
The mysteries as well are intriguing character studies and explorations into human nature. The motivations of the various characters whom Ladarat encounters are all so richly textured. They feel real, for lack of a better word, and I think it’s Ladarat’s perspective that makes it so. The story of the man in the waiting room is particularly intriguing, and we find this out mainly thanks to Ladarat’s willingness to, literally, see things from his perspective. The story of the murderer in the main story could have been fleshed out a bit more, in my opinion, particularly the involvement of a particular figure in their crimes, but I think that’s just because Casarett does such a good job in fleshing out other characters that, like Ladarat, I end up wanting to understand even more.
Casarett also provides a lot of detail about Thai culture, particularly customs and cuisine. It’s an intriguing glimpse into a culture I’m not too familiar with, and kudos to the author for explaining customs like the wai greeting ritual without presenting it as exotic. Casarett travels to Chiang Mai often, and his love for Thai cuisine is very much apparent in this book. He describes Ladarat’s meals with the same level of loving detail as Carolyn Keene described Hannah Gruen’s feasts in the Nancy Drew books, and I often became hungry for Thai food while reading this.
Empathy is under-emphasized as a super-skill in detective fiction, and in that, Ladarat Patalung stands out. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her and seeing her tease out the various threads in people’s stories. Murder at the House of Rooster Happiness is a strong start to a new mystery series, and I can’t wait to read more.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.