Human trafficking

Slavery is as old as mankind. The slaves were made to work by the rich and powerful, their owners and overseers, at physical labours that sapped their strength and deprived them of their dignity. Often chained, always beaten to keep them in line. Tilling fields, building pyramids, or rowing ships, they died in place.

The Forgotten by David Baldacci, 424 pp, 2012 Macmillan paperback. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 695 baht.

It wasn't until the 19th century that slavery was legally abolished in country after country yet it did continue, illegally, in what was known as white slavery. This generally referred to white women who were kidnapped and sold into prostitution (extending to non-white women).

While not fully wiped out, a new dimension superseded it: human trafficking. Men, women and children were abducted from different continents primarily for their body parts, for which the demand greatly exceeded the legal means of obtaining them. As waiting means death, those able to afford it pay huge fortunes to the black market for quick delivery.

As skin colour is immaterial and impoverished people abound (who bothers searching for them?), gangs pick them up by the truckload and ship them abroad. In The Forgotten, one of America's top authors focuses on one destination. In his 25th crime thriller David Baldacci points his pen at the seaside resort of Paradise, Florida.

Peter Lampert and his partner Rojas are in charge of the operation Stateside. There are abandoned oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and the nefarious duo use one or another to imprison their multi-national slaves. They have bribed a good many people to turn a blind eye to their operation.

The author's protagonist will have none of it. Former bemedalled Ranger John Puller, chief warrant officer with the Criminal Investigation Department of the US army, 2m tall, strong as a bull, single, is the son of a retired lieutenant-general. (Alas his brother, a former major, is serving a life sentence for treason.)

Leaving DC to investigate his aunt's "accidental death" _ murder _ he comes upon the human trafficking operation and after a series of punch-ups and shoot-outs succeeds in doing what Uncle Sam expected him to do. A woman brigadier helps him, a woman police chief betrays him, a massively built Bulgarian breaks his bones like matchsticks.

Novels are written about human trafficking, and The Forgotten is one of the few to leave an impression. As protagonists go, John Puller takes a leaf from Lee Child's Jack Reacher. Both are plus-six-footers, which makes Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe and Hercule Poirot shrimps. Does size count?

The Salem Witch Society by K.N. Shields, 484 pp, 2013 Sphere paperback. Available at Asia Books and leading bookshops, 350 baht.

Still around

Were it not for novels and movies with special effects, witchcraft wouldn't enter our thoughts. While a great fear for millennia _ the Old Testament warns against it _ it has turned into an old wives' tale in recent times. Now and again there are reports of active covens practising black magic, but they are regarded as a sick joke.

History books have it that the Puritans, driven out of England and Holland, settled in Massachusetts for religious freedom. What is omitted is that they were intolerant. Which was clear to those reading past the title of "The Declaration Of The Rights Of Man". Witch-hunts were prevalent there.

Their climax were the Salem witch trials of 1692, Cotton Mather presiding. On the hysterical accusations of mainly teenage girls, who dreamed of members of the community consorting with the devil, two dozen men, women and children died during torture or being burned at the stake. Today, Salem is filled with shops selling broomsticks and such.

In The Salem Witch Society, US author K.N. Shields sets his story in Portland, Maine, in 1892, although many of its nearly 500 pages recount the infamous events in Salem two centuries before. The author has certainly done his homework. A young prostitute is found murdered in Portland in 1892, a board with seeming gibberish located beside her.

Deputy Marshal Archie Lean can't make it out and Pinkerton agent Perceval Grey is asked to assist him. An American Indian-American (half-breed wouldn't be socially correct), Grey's personality and sleuthing takes a leaf from Sherlock Holmes. The tribal message translates as "Thy Kingdom Come".

As bodies pile up, their methods of death suggest ritual _ witchcraft _ killings. Shields devotes chapters to the records of the 1692 testimonies. A Black Book of witches' curses is uncovered. Twists and turns are de rigueur in the latter part of any thriller, but there are too many by half here.

Grey is no Jack Reacher-John Puller physical specimen, but he gives as good as he gets in the penultimate chapter with the serial killer witch. Mind you, witches aren't vampires, werewolves or zombies. It's just that they worship a fallen angel, not God. And they practise human sacrifice.

The Salem Witch Society may not get you worrying about them, but you won't laugh.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Bernard Trink
Position: Freelance Writer