The Ethical Chiang Mai Detective Agency is such a lovely series, beautifully written and an utter delight to read. Author David Casarett is also a doctor, and I love that while his books have some medical detail in them, the stories are much more interested in the ethical and moral conundrums around medicine than they are in the hard science. As a result, the Ladarat Patalung mysteries are a much-welcome softer form of medical drama, where the mystery isn’t so much about what happened as it is about how should we respond to what we learn has happened.
In my review of the first book, I write about how Ladarat’s empathy is a vastly underrated super-skill in detective fiction, and while it’s back in full-force in The Missing Guests of the Magic Grove Hotel, it’s more her power of observation that gets the spotlight. The main mystery in this instalment is about the mysterious disappearances of wealthy foreign travellers after they check in to the Magic Grove Hotel. The truth and the motivations behind it are a fairly easy puzzle to solve, and to be honest, I was a bit frustrated that Ladarat’s talented detective boyfriend Wiriya took so long to figure it out. Still, the strength of this particular puzzle lies in the questions it raises after being solved. Casarett does a great job in delving into the emotions of the characters involved, and I ultimately found it a very moving, somewhat disquieting story.
As with the first book, Ladarat also had to deal with a cluster of subplot mysteries — a smuggling ring with operatives identified by their parrot bags, bus passengers falling asleep and getting robbed, a doctor whose performance is slipping for no apparent reason, and an oddly low mortality rate in the palliative care wing at Ladarat’s hospital. I loved these subplots because they fleshed out the world around Ladarat and gave some of the secondary characters a chance to shine. In particular, Ladarat’s assistant Sisithorn emerged as a budding detective herself, and I absolutely loved the enthusiasm with which she tackled both her job and her investigations, as well as the bemused yet also somewhat maternal mentorship Ladarat clearly feels for her. The reveals to these mysteries range from methodical to amusing, and the connection of one of the subplots to the larger case is moving.
Ultimately, the heart of this story goes beyond the mysteries and boils down to a question Ladarat ponders in her job as nurse ethicist — what makes for a ‘good death’, and what role should nurses and doctors play in helping people achieve that? The sobering nature of this dilemma is wonderfully balanced out by the lighthearted way in which Casarett treats the rest of his story. I love the delicious descriptions of Thai cuisine and the sweet hilarity of Ladarat learning to cook for Wiriya. I’m less a fan of Wiriya’s dismissiveness of Ladarat’s investigative insight, but I’m glad he realizes his error later in the book, and Casarett’s depiction of how Ladarat navigates the mansplaining in her world is all too relatable.
Magic Grove Hotel is a wonderful addition to the Ladarat Patalung series. The mysteries aren’t quite as puzzling as in Rooster Happiness, but the cast of characters is given more room to develop, and the series is all the richer for it. I’m a big fan of this series, and can’t wait for the next book!
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.