The Postmistress of Nong Khai by Frank Hurst

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The Postmistress of Nong Khai by Frank Hurst

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A fictionalised account of the war on drug smuggling as waged by customs investigators, the James and Jane Bonds of the Customs and Excise. Moments of insight and moments of excitement from an author who seems to know a lot about it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: January 2016
Publisher: Matador
ISBN: 978-1785890574

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Mike Rawlins' rise through the ranks in the investigation department of Customs and Excise has been steady, culminating in his dream posting: attachment to the British Embassy, Thailand. It gets even better when he realises a name from his past is also operating out of the country on the other side of the law. Mike's attempts to nail him over the years have become personal and now, thanks to local informant or 'Postmistress' Lek, prosecution is a possibility. What Mike doesn't realise is the cost the chase will exact… not yet anyway.

British author Frank Hurst begins his with a disclaimer, warning us that any fiction about a 'secretly minded' government department (love that phrase!) will be more fiction than fact. He then brings us a story that feels very authentic and is packed with minute detail so it makes us wonder if it's fictionalised research or if he's been on the sharp end in another life.

Back at the story, our anti-hero and narrator Mike is a man increasingly absorbed by his job. As his profession's work hard/play hard ethos takes hold in his life and his ambition is driven by the thrill of the chase, relationships back in the world of mundane domesticity are left behind.

Mike may tell himself that he's doing this for his family but his lifestyle tells us otherwise. Indeed, the pursuit of his nemesis, Bart Vanderpool, becomes as much a drug to Mike as the substances Bart's smuggling. The interesting thing is that as we read his story, we realise that his addiction has replaced any redeeming features Mike may have had before it became so personal. He has no excuses nor does he make any, yet we recognise his humanity and it's that which resonates and turns the pages while we witness his day-to-day life.

The previously mentioned detail dictates the pace of the story. We learn of those whom Mike works with as well as those he works against. Also, be they real or created, the inside systems are described to us in depth. Whether you find them interesting would depend on whether you read fiction to learn about the nitty gritty behind the scenes or whether you're there for the thrills and the chase. At times they feed into each other well, the back room insights beating the thriller side for the bulk of the book time.

Once we're in Thailand the geography and atmosphere tints the pages with an authentic sense of place and custom – the cultural type rather than 'and excise'. There's also an admirable dose of discretion as the different forms of… shall we say physical hospitality.. are hinted at, leaving the sweaty stuff to our imaginations.

There are a couple of key moments when Mike demonstrates his ability to make us so tense that fingernails are bitten. The airport heist regaled from Mike's early years in the service is one (including some fascinating insight into the mechanics of a stake out). The second is the chase centred climax near the end, reminiscent of old school thriller writers like Alistair Maclean. Then the pace cuts back again, taking us to a finale that we may have guessed but that doesn't make its events any less satisfying.

(Thank you to Matador for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you'd like more thrillers based in the murky world of drug smuggling, try Flight by Adam Thorpe.

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