“The Orchid Tattoo” by Carla Damron

The pages of Carla Damron’s The Orchid Tattoo (Koehler Books, 2022) whiz by so fast, so easily, I have to say it is one of the best nail-biters I’ve read in a while. Not only that, this well-crafted thriller features a smart, likeable hospital social worker—Georgia Thayer—as protagonist. She is pitted against a human trafficking ring. In short, The Orchid Tattoo is a great read with a social message.

The opening shows Georgia, better known as George, in action interviewing a crazed patient in a Columbia, South Carolina, hospital. When the patient claims she hears the voice of a demon, George understands better than most. She, too, hears voices that years of therapy and medication have helped her to control.

If that’s not enough action and high stakes for the opening chapter, George’s brother-in-law David calls with bad news. Her sister Peyton is missing. Her absence is incomprehensible. She would not just abandon her beloved daughter Lindsay. She would not stop going to her grad school classes. And she would not leave without her cell phone. The race is on to find Peyton.

Some chapters are told from the viewpoint of a fifteen-year-old Kitten, who is trying to escape from Roman. He is a thug who runs prostitutes out of a run-down trailer. Some chapters are narrated by other women under the traffickers’ control. Damron does an excellent job of portraying those trapped by the trafficking ring without ever stooping to condescension or losing sight of their humanity. The girls and women are fragile yet strong, vulnerable yet tough, afraid yet brave. The American at the head of the operation calls himself Jefe—pronounced hef-fay. He has become extremely wealthy from human trafficking. While some of his prostitutes work in tawdry bars, others entertain an entirely different class of clients at Jefe’s exotic Orchid Estate. CEOs. Senators. Governors. But no matter where these women and young girls work, the threat of violence hangs over them constantly. Any mistake or attempt to escape leads to a vicious beating. Or death.

Since the police don’t approach Peyton’s disappearance with enough urgency and intensity to suit George, she launches her own investigation. She learns her sister had a secret project for one of her classes. Why would she keep it secret from her husband, her sister, even her classmates? What was she up to? Did her research for this project lead to her disappearance? The more George investigates, the more she feels she can’t trust anyone except Elias, a Black gay bar owner who is her closest friend. They bonded while in group therapy.

As the novel progresses, the stakes raise for all the characters, propelling us forward relentlessly. Some surprising twists add to the novel’s breathless climactic moments.

Like her protagonist Georgia, Carla Damron is a mental health professional. She holds a Masters in Social Work (USC) and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Queens University.  In 2000, she was given the “Outstanding Mental Health Professional of the Year” award by the state chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. She is a South Carolina native and lives outside of Columbia. Her novels include The Stone Necklace (winner of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association Star Award), Death in Zooville, Keeping Silent, and Spider Blue. Her books explore social issues like addiction, homelessness, and mental illness. Her short stories have appeared in Fall Lines, Six Minute Magazine, Melusine, In Posse Review, and other journals.

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