Murder at the House of Rooster Happiness


By David Casarett

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Meet Ladarat Patalung — the first and only nurse detective in Thailand.
Two nights ago, a young woman brought her husband into the emergency room of the Sriphat Hospital in Thailand, where he passed away. A guard thinks she remembers her coming in before, but with a different husband — one who also died.
Ladarat Patalung, for one, would have been happier without a serial murderer-if there is one — loose in her hospital. Then again,she never expected to be a detective in the first place.

And now, Ladarat has no choice but to investigate. . .

The first novel in a captivating new series by David Casarett, M.D.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of Mercy at the Peaceful Inn of Last Resort


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Wan jan



I have come to see you, Khun Ladarat, about a matter of the utmost urgency."

The comfortably built man sitting on the other side of the desk paused, and shifted his bulk in a way that prompted the little wooden chair underneath him to register a subdued groan of protest.

"A matter of the utmost urgency," he repeated, "and more than a little delicacy."

Ladarat Patalung began to suspect that this Monday morning was going to be more interesting than most. Her conclusion was based in part, of course, on the formal designation of the matter at hand as one of the "utmost urgency." In her experience, that didn't happen often on a Monday morning. Despite the fact that she was the official nurse ethicist for Sriphat Hospital, the largest—and best—hospital in northern Thailand, it was unusual to be confronted by a matter that could be reasonably described in this way.

But Ladarat's conclusion was also based on her observation that her visitor was nervous. Very nervous. And nervousness was no doubt an unusual sensation for this broad-faced and broad-shouldered visitor. 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, Detective Wiriya Mookjai had been an almost silent presence in her life for the past three years. Ever since her cousin Siriwan Pookusuwan had introduced them.

Ladarat herself didn't have much cause to meet members of the Chiang Mai Royal Police Force. But Siriwan most certainly did. She ran a girlie bar—a brothel, of sorts—in the old city. So she had more contact of that nature, perhaps, than she would like. Not all of it good.

Khun Wiriya was that rarest of beings—an honest policeman. They did exist in Thailand, all reports to the contrary. But they were rare enough to be worth celebrating when one was discovered. In fact, Wiriya was something of a hero. He never talked about it, but Ladarat had heard that he'd been injured in a shoot-out several years ago. In fact, he was a hero to many younger officers who aspired to be injured in a similar way, though of course without unnecessary pain and with no residual disability.

She'd met him before at the tea shop her cousin also owned, although he'd never before come to see her at work. Yet now he had. And now he was sitting across from her in her little basement office in Sriphat Hospital, with just her little desk between them. And he seemed to be nervous.

How did she know that the detective was nervous? The most significant clue was his tie. Khun Wiriya was wearing a green tie. He was wearing a green tie, that is, on a particular Monday, the day of the king's birth. Today almost everyone in Thailand of a mature age—a category that included both the detective and herself—would honor the occasion by wearing something yellow. For men, it would be a tie.

Ladarat herself was honoring the day with a yellow silk blouse, along with a blue skirt that was her constant uniform. They were not particularly flattering to her thin figure, she knew. Her late husband, Somboon, had often joked—gently—that sometimes it was difficult to tell whether a suit of clothes concealed his wife, or whether perhaps they hid a coat hangar. It was true she lacked obvious feminine… landmarks. That, plus oversize glasses and hair pinned tightly in a bun, admittedly did not contribute to a figure of surpassing beauty.

But Ladarat Patalung was not the sort of person to dwell on herself. Either her strong points or any points at all. Those people existed, she knew. Particularly in Sriphat Hospital. They were very much aware of their finer points, in particular, and eagerly sought out confirmation of those points. These were people who waited hungrily for compliments, much as a hunting crocodile lurks in the reeds by the edge of a lake.

If she were that sort of person—the sort of person who dwells on her talents and wants to add yet another to her list—it might have occurred to her to think that her deduction regarding Khun Wiriya's nervousness revealed the hidden talents of a detective. She might have reached this conclusion because she noticed things like the doctor's behavior. And not everyone did.

But she was most emphatically not the sort of person to dwell on her talents. Besides, her perceptiveness wasn't even a talent, really. Not any more than being a nurse ethicist was a talent. Anyone could do it, given the right training. Ladarat herself was certainly nothing special.

Being an ethicist was all about observing. And that was more of a… habit. Anyone could do it. You just had to be quiet, and listen, and watch. That's all.

It was a habit that was a little like finding forest elephants in her home village near Mae Jo, in the far northwestern corner of Thailand. Anybody could see an elephant in front of her nose, of course. But to sense where they might be, back in the undergrowth, you had to be very still. And watchful.

In that moment, as the detective fidgeted and his eyes skittered across her bookshelves, Ladarat resolved that she would be very quiet. She would be watchful. She would be patient as her father taught her to be when they went looking for elephants thirty years ago. She was only a little girl then, but he taught her to pay attention to the world around her. That was what this moment called for.

She settled back to wait, sure that the reason for Khun Wiriya's nervousness would emerge just as the shape of an elephant would materialize from the overgrowth, if you were patient enough. After all, Khun Wiriya was an important detective. His was a very prestigious position, held by a very important man. This was a man who had no time for social visits, and therefore a man who could be counted on to get to the point quickly. So Ladarat looked expectantly across her desk at the detective, her pencil poised above a clean yellow notepad that she had labeled with today's date.

She hoped she wouldn't have to wait long, though. She, too, was busy. She was the nurse ethicist for the entire hospital, and she had a full docket already. And the Royal Hospital Inspection Committee would be coming to visit next Monday, exactly one short week from now. And not only did she need to impress the committee, she also needed to impress Tippawan Taksin, her supervisor. Khun Tippawan was a thin, pinched woman with a near-constant squint who held the exalted title of "Director of Excellence." A title that was due in no small part to the fact that she was a distant relation of the Thai noble family. And what did that title mean exactly?

Anyway, impressing the inspector was one thing, but impressing the tough Khun Tippawan would be something else altogether.

She had so much to prepare. Even if she worked twenty-four hours every day for the next week, she would never please Khun Tippawan. So hopefully the trouble—whatever it was—would emerge soon. And it did.

"I mean to say…" the detective said, "we may be looking for a murderer."

Ladarat nodded but suspected that she did not entirely succeed in maintaining a calm, unruffled demeanor. It wasn't every day that she had such a conversation about murder. In fact, she had never had such a conversation.

At least the case of the detective's nervousness had been solved. This was Chiang Mai, after all. A small city. A safe city. Where the old Thai values of respect and courtesy still flourished. A murder here would be… well, not unthinkable. But very, very unusual. Of course Khun Wiriya would be nervous—and excited—thinking that he might have discovered a murderer.

At a loss for words, she wrote: "Murder?" She looked down with new respect at her humble yellow pad, which had suddenly become very, very interesting.

"We received a call last night from a young police officer—a corporal—working at the emergency room of this hospital," Wiriya said slowly. "He called about a patient whose wife had brought him there. When they arrived, the man was quite dead apparently."

Ladarat wrote: "Woman. Man. Emergency. Quite dead."

"It seems that he had been dead for a little while—long enough, in fact, that there was nothing at all they could do for him. So they called the emergency room doctor to fill out the death certificate."

Ladarat underlined "Quite."

"But this corporal thought perhaps he recognized the man's wife," Wiriya continued. "He thought… he'd met her before at another hospital. But he wasn't certain, you understand?"

Ladarat wasn't at all sure she understood. She nodded anyway.

The detective paused, choosing his words carefully. Ladarat waited. Thus far she wasn't seeing the need for an ethicist. But she would be patient. You must never approach an elephant in the forest, her father told her. You must always allow it to approach you.

"So the corporal asked the doctor in charge, you see. To share his concerns." He flipped open a small spiral notebook and checked. "A Dr.… Aroon?"

He looked inquisitively at her, but Ladarat shook her head. It was no one she knew. But then, doctors were always coming and going. They'd work for a year at this government hospital, then they'd move to one of the private hospitals that paid much more. It was a shame.

"But here it is," Wiriya said. "This woman? Who he thought he'd met before? You see, the last time they met was in the same exact circumstances. She'd brought her husband into the emergency room after he died. In both circumstances, the men had been brought in too late to help them."

She wrote: "Two deaths. More?"

He paused, and they both thought about what this coincidence might mean. Nothing good.

"Some women are… unlucky in this way," Ladarat suggested. "It was a tragedy, to be sure, but this man, was he… an older man?"

Wiriya shrugged. "He was not a young man, it is safe to say. Neither was the other man. About forty-five, perhaps. That is not too old, is it, Khun?"

She supposed it was not.

"And what was the cause of death?"

"For the first, the corporal didn't know." He shrugged. "But for this one, the woman, she said it was his heart."

"His heart? Of course it was his heart. Your heart stops and you die. That's not an explanation, any more than saying a plane crash happened… because the plane, it hit the ground."

Wiriya looked suitably chastened. "Well, that's why I came to you, you see? You have this special medical knowledge. And, of course, you think like a detective."

A detective? Her? Most certainly not. That required skills. And penetrating intelligence, and cunning. She herself had none of those attributes. She would leave detecting to others who were better suited for the job.

"But," she said, thinking out loud, "if he did have heart failure, for instance, there might have been signs that the doctor noticed. Those would be documented in the medical record."

"The corporal said that the doctor didn't write anything. He didn't want to admit the patient because that would mean more paperwork. So he just signed the death certificate."

"I see. Well, then for two marriages to end in death, it is unlucky, to be sure. Still, it doesn't sound suspicious, does it?"

Wiriya was silent. Obviously he thought this situation was suspicious, or a busy man like him would not have wasted his time visiting her. Unless… perhaps this was just an excuse for a social call? Highly doubtful. He was a careful, methodical man, to be sure. Most important, a good man. And not unattractive.

But what was she thinking? He was here to ask for her help in a murder investigation. Her, Ladarat Patalung, nurse ethicist. And here she was thinking crazy thoughts.

Still the detective said nothing. He leaned back slightly in his chair and studied the ceiling above his head very carefully. He seemed to be thinking.

About what?

What do detectives think about? Real detectives. They look for patterns, don't they? They look for facts that fit together.

So perhaps there was a pattern here that Wiriya thought he saw. And maybe he wanted to see whether she saw it, too. Perhaps this was a test.

She wrote: "Pattern?"

Well, then. What sorts of patterns might there be?

"From what the young policeman said," she asked, "was there anything that these two unfortunate men had in common?"

"Ahhh." Wiriya shook his head, dragging his attention back down from the ceiling as if he had come to some important decision. "Yes, but I can't make anything of it. You see, they were both Chinese."

Ah, Chinese. Ladarat glanced at the detective. His face was a blank wall, and his gaze was again fixed with intense interest on the area of ceiling just above her head.

The Chinese. Some said that the culture of Thailand could be both gentle and intensely proud because the country had never been invaded. Never colonized. But Ladarat wasn't so sure about that. There were so many Chinese here now, one could be forgiven for assuming that the Chinese had, in fact, invaded.

It would be one thing if they were polite, but they were not. So quick to be angry. So harsh. So rude. Worse, even, than the Germans.

So it was with mixed emotions that she contemplated the nationality of these men and wrote "CHINESE" in big block letters.

Ladarat would be the first to admit that it was bad to stereotype. One should never judge a book by its cover. Although, truth be told, that was often the way she purchased a book—by looking closely at the cover. Like the new biography of that remarkable woman Aung San Suun Kyi. She had purchased a copy last weekend at the night market down by the Ping River largely because of the photograph of the beautiful woman on the cover, who seemed to be looking right at her, about to offer advice. So there was something to be said for the usefulness of a book's cover. But for people, no, that was wrong.

Perhaps detectives of the private sort could pick and choose their cases. But she was not a detective. She was a nurse. And an ethicist.

Where would we be if nurses and ethicists could pick and choose whom they would help? Nowhere good.

In fact, the slim volume that was sitting in the very center of her little desk had one page that was more thoroughly read than any other, and that was page 18. There was a passage on that otherwise unremarkable page that she knew by heart: "A nurse must always leave her prejudices at the door when she walks into a patient's room."

The book modestly called itself The Fundamentals of Ethics, by Julia Dalrymple, R.N., Ph.D., Professor of Nursing at the Yale University of the U.S.A. Ladarat regretted extremely the dullness of the title. It didn't really do justice to the wisdom of this little volume, which she'd discovered in a used bookstore in the city of Chicago in the United States when she was there for a year of ethics education. Not a day went by that she didn't seek Professor Dalrymple's wisdom to answer a question, to solve a problem, or sometimes just to be reminded of a nurse's obligations.

So she would follow the good professor's advice. She would leave her prejudices at the door.

"And the man's name?" she asked.

The detective hesitated. "It was… Zhang Wei."

"Oh no."

"Exactly. Oh no."

As she jotted this name down on her increasingly crowded—but increasingly interesting—yellow pad, Ladarat reflected that Zhang Wei was a very common Chinese name. A little like John Smith in the United States. And when a name was common in China, there weren't just thousands of them—there were millions.

"And the previous man's name?"

"We don't know. The corporal can't even remember which hospital it was—apparently he's worked at many. So it's unlikely we'll ever be able to find out."

That sparked another thought that it seemed like a detective might ask.

"And this other death, when was it?"

"Ah. Well, the corporal thinks it was in July."

That was only three months ago. Two months to find another man, get married, and have him die.

"You are sure that the woman was truly married to the man who died last night?"

Wiriya smiled. "So now you're definitely thinking like a detective. No, we don't know for sure. She claimed to be, at least."

She dutifully wrote: "Married???"

"So you think this might be… murder?"

Her first thought was for that unfortunate man, of course. But her next thought, almost immediately, was for the good name of her hospital. What would it look like if they had just let a murderer walk in and walk out? That would be very, very bad.

Especially with the Royal Hospital Inspection Committee arriving next Monday. What would the inspectors think of a hospital that aids and abets a murderer?

And think how they would look to the public. Ehhhh, this was very, very bad. Something must be done.

"Serial murder, yes," Wiriya said. "If there are two cases we know about, there may be others."

They both thought for a moment about what that might mean. A woman out there, somewhere, who was murdering her husbands. But why? Why would she do such a thing?

Then she saw. "Insurance money? She's pretending to be married and then killing them for their insurance money?"

Wiriya nodded. "At least that's a possibility. It's all I can think of," he admitted.

"But then why bring them to the emergency room?"

Neither of them could answer that question, but one piece of the corporal's story struck her. "The death certificates," she said. "It's the death certificates. She's taking them to the emergency room so she can get a death certificate."

He nodded. "She'd need one to collect the life insurance, of course." He was smiling, now. "You're quite good at this."

For a moment she suspected that the detective had reached this conclusion ahead of her. He was, after all, a detective. Perhaps this was a test? Or maybe he was giving her a chance to figure it out for herself? In any case, she was proud of herself for reaching the correct conclusion on her own.

Ladarat Patalung, ethical nurse detective. She liked the way that sounded.

"But… why do you come to me? What can I do to help?"

The detective didn't answer immediately. When he did, she thought for a moment that he hadn't heard her question.

"In your work here, you must have to review… cases?"

Ladarat agreed that she did. There would be questions about a patient's care and she would investigate. Although she wouldn't use that word exactly. She would look and listen and ask questions. She would try to determine whether her colleagues behaved in the proper way. And if they didn't, she would look for opportunities to help the doctors and nurses involved see what they could have done differently. So yes, she was used to looking and searching.

Wiriya thought about her answer for a moment.

"You see," he said finally, "I don't know if there have been other cases at this hospital. And I can't find out without a search warrant. And… well… there isn't nearly enough evidence for one. The chief would just laugh at me." He paused, thinking.

"And so you see, I thought that because of your position, you would have a justification to look through medical records… quietly."

"But what would I be looking for so… quietly?"

"Well, if this woman were a murderer, then we'd need to think about poison. That would be the logical method."

Ladarat nodded, then stopped to think about that. "It would?"

The detective nodded. "Poison is often a woman's method. It is a known fact."

Ladarat wasn't so sure about that. That was a rather sexist thing to say, wasn't it? But presumably Khun Wiriya knew what he was talking about. Still, shouldn't she question everything? That's what a real detective would do. So she wrote very carefully: "Woman = Poison?" And underlined the question mark.

"So," Wiriya continued, "we need to look for evidence of poison. Blood tests, and… so forth."

Ladarat was intensely curious about what the "and so forth" consisted of. Yet she began to see what the detective had in mind. "So you want me to see if there were any lab tests that were ordered."

Wiriya nodded, relieved.

Then Ladarat had another thought. "But if this was only last night, it might still be possible to run new tests on a blood sample." She'd heard of the coroner's office doing such things for suspicious deaths.

"Well, it's not so simple, unfortunately. The body has been taken for cremation already."

"Already? But he only died last night. And wouldn't she need a marriage certificate to be able to obtain the body?"

Ladarat knew that the marriage certificate would be essential in order for this woman to claim the body and receive a death certificate. She'd been involved in a terrible situation last year when a woman wanted to bring her husband's body back to Vietnam to be buried at their home near My Tho. But the poor woman didn't have a marriage certificate, so she couldn't prove that they were married. Eventually the hospital monks had to intervene.

Now Wiriya looked grim. He smacked his solid hand down on the desk in front of him and looked at her with a new respect.

"I knew I was missing something. I knew something was wrong. She had the marriage certificate with her last night." He paused. "You see?"

She didn't. But then she did. Very clearly.

If your husband died suddenly, would you have the presence of mind to find your marriage certificate and take it with you? You would not. You would panic. You would call your family. You would do any one of a number of logical and illogical things. But you would not think to take your marriage certificate to the hospital with your newly deceased husband.

"So that means that the hospital has a copy," she pointed out. "We'd need to keep a copy of the marriage certificate for our records."

Wiriya was nodding enthusiastically now. "So at least we'll be able to get her name. That's good. That's very good." He smacked his palm on the desk again, for emphasis, but more gently this time. And he was smiling.

"Well," he said finally. "This is progress. Perhaps it will be nothing, but maybe…"

He left the sentence unfinished, but Ladarat knew what he was thinking. Maybe, just maybe, they were on the trail of a murderer. They knew that she was out there somewhere, but she didn't know that she was being pursued. That thought gave Ladarat energy and a sense of excitement she hadn't felt in a long, long time.

Being an ethicist was important work, of course. And satisfying. But it wasn't… exciting.

"So you'll do it?"

Ladarat started to say that of course she'd do it. But she hesitated. She was the ethicist, after all. And here she was offering to look through a patient's records. Was that… ethical? She thought so, but…

"Yes, I'll do it."

"Good. And in the meantime, I will ask around… quietly. Perhaps there have been other suspicious deaths…"

They stood up to say their good-byes, and she thought Wiriya might have lingered just a little longer in her door than was absolutely necessary. But if she had to be completely honest with herself, she didn't mind. She wasn't sure whether that was because he was such good company, or whether it was simply the excitement of the investigation. Whatever the reason, she found that she was a little sad to see the door of her little office close behind him.


Ladarat Patalung did not have such conversations about murder every day. It was safe to say that such a conversation was an event and should be treated as such. It should be… marked somehow.

And what better way to mark such an event than with a snack? Just a small something. It was only midmorning. A sweet, perhaps.

No sooner had she reached this gratifying conclusion than her mind began to wander—entirely of its own accord—out the front door of Sriphat Hospital. Down the wide, grand stone steps, it went around the meandering driveway, and to the main entrance on Suthep Road. There, her mind explored the options for a snack that would be appropriate to the occasion.

In giddy anticipation, her hopeful mind wandered along the row of stalls that were reliably arrayed along the west side of Suthep Road. At the first cart there was khao neow ma muang—perhaps the simplest Thai dessert (Khanom)—slices of sweet, overripe mango on top of a small mound of sticky rice and drenched with rich coconut syrup. Or perhaps khanom jark—coconut meat and palm sugar wrapped in a palm leaf and grilled until the coconut and sugar were fused into an intensely sweet toasted candy. Or khao neow dam—black sweet sticky rice smothered in finely shredded coconut. Or…

She had just decided on khao neow dam as being a little more virtuous, when her mind's wandering was pulled up short by a knock on her office door. Deeply disappointed, her mind hurried back up the hospital driveway, through the grand entry hall, and down to the basement, dragging its heels the whole way.

"Khun Ladarat?"

Oh dear. That was a voice she knew well. A moment later, the door opened and the face to which the voice belonged emerged in the gap, framed against the dark hallway beyond. Ladarat suppressed an instant of annoyance as she realized that her mind's culinary wanderings had been so abruptly curtailed by her assistant nurse ethicist. She of all people should know that very few things are more urgent than khao neow dam.

Ladarat had just received permission this year to hire an assistant ethicist, and she'd selected Sisithorn Wichasak from more than a hundred applicants. Sisithorn was a new nurse who had just graduated from school two months ago. Young and gangly, she had no discernable social skills whatsoever. She favored big, round glasses; oversize clothes; and wide, open-toed sandals that emphasized her big feet and inelegant toes. Not that Ladarat was qualified to critique anyone's sense of fashion, but she could think of a few pointers one might offer, if one could find the right moment.

In fairness, though, Sisithorn was exceptionally smart. She graduated at the top of her class at Kuakarun College of Nursing in Bangkok, and then she came here to Chiang Mai because she wanted to learn about ethics.

"Khun Ladarat—Khun Jainukul is here." Her assistant was breathless with excitement over such an important visitor. "Will you see him now?"


  • "A charming mystery...a delight."—Vaseem Khan, author of the Baby Ganesh Detective Agency series
  • "A wonderful debut novel full of the sights, sounds and senses of Thailand mixed in with one hell of a great plot and a heroine -- Ladarat Patalung -- who stays with you long after the book is closed. Bring on the second in the series."—Ian Hamilton, author of the Ava Lee novels
  • "I love this book. It's not only a killer mystery, but it also introduces a uniquely appealing central character and gives us a warm and accurate look into the Thai heart."—Timothy Hallinan, author of the Junior Bender mysteries and the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers
  • "Appealing."—Kirkus
  • A fun read... which I polished off in one day.—The Berkshire Eagle

On Sale
Sep 13, 2016
Page Count
368 pages

David Casarett

About the Author

David Casarett, M.D., is a physician, researcher, and tenured associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. He is the author of three acclaimed works of non-fiction. His studies have resulted in more than one hundred articles and book chapters, published in leading medical journals such as JAMA and the New England Journal of Medicine. His many awards include the prestigious U.S. Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. He lives in Philadelphia.

Learn more about this author