Tuesday, November 4, 2014

For the Dead by Timothy Hallinan - Book Review

For the Dead (Poke Rafferty Thriller #6) by Timothy Hallinan (SoHo Crime, November 2014, 353 pages, $26.95/12.99) is the sixth entry in Hallinan's popular Poke Rafferty series, continuing to develop the adventures of the expatriate travel writer living in Bangkok. I was first introduced to Hallinan when I read Herbie's Game from the also successful Junior Benson series, featuring detective Junior Benson, who also happens to be a thief. I loved Herbie's Game and I loved For the Dead, too, different as they are in setting, tone, and theme. The only element joining the two books, and so, presumably, the series themselves, is Hallinan's exceptional skill in developing believable, likable, precocious young adolescents and his preoccupation with the idea of family. While I would rather get into a series on the ground floor, reading it from episode one, this has rarely happened for me. Thus, one of my criteria for enjoying my first foray into a series book is whether I can enjoy it without the benefit of familiarity with the back story. In For the Dead, I found the forward propulsion of the current story so compelling that I had little or no need for Hallinan to provide me with lots of prior information. He skillfully fills in along the way as this very engrossing thriller grabbed me and drove me through its 350 pages with remarkable speed. This is a good one!

The novel opens with a couple of what look like mysterious gang murders carried off with professional precision. Fast cut to two street children, Challee and Dok, who discover an emaciated, almost dead, person wrapped in a too large coat. They bring the nearly dead girl to Father Bill's school where street children are being rehabilitated. Cut to Miaow, the thirteen year old adopted daughter of Poke Rafferty and his beautiful wife, Rose, a former stripper and prostitute. Miaow attends a fine private school with her friend Andrew, the dorky son of a Vietnamese diplomat. Andrew, in fear of his father after having lost his second cell phone in two weeks, allows Miaow to take him through her former haunts to a street shop selling cheap used, and probably stolen cell phones. It soon becomes clear that powerful forces are seeking Andrew's new cell phone, and the rescued street child wants to see Poke. All the children involved, except Andrew, as well as Rose, are people whose lives have been uprooted and nearly destroyed by the destruction of rural Thailand's agriculture and the burgeoning sex trade leading to children's being sent to the city as either sex workers or to exist on their wits in urban squalor. The setup for this story is complex, involving obvious corruption to the highest levels of the Thai government, and direst poverty at the lowest levels, all interconnected and hidden.

All this mystery revolves around Poke Rafferty, seeking to solidify his family, whose coherence is challenged by the difficult life situations from which they come. Miaow must cope with the typical insecurities of a blossoming early adolescent complicated by her former life on the street and the new image she's attempting to create for her herself at school and with Andrew. Rose, too, has an emerging secret. As Poke becomes increasingly involved in the murders, through his desire to protect his daughter and his wife, characters from his past emerge to involve him in ever widening complexity. The Thai policeman, Arthit, Boo, the former street person turned protege of Father Bill, and Andrew's diplomat father all become enmeshed in the action, which is fast, precise, and gripping. I'm interested in learning more about Poke, and have already downloaded the preceding novel from the local public library.

Bangkok is a bang-up place to set a fast-paced thriller. An ancient kingdom placed in a strategic location bounded by Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Malaysia with Vietnam and China nearby, Thailand is a cultural melting pot where clashing values and seething resentments abound. The role of white former colonizers only makes the whole mixture that much more explosive. Hallinan, who lives part of each year there, is well positioned to capture the environment: its heat and smells and crowds and tensions. Hallinan lives part of each year in southeast Asia, lending a high level of verisimilitude to his writing. Important themes emerging in the book and worthy of further explication are the exploitation of (especially) rural children in the world-wide sex trade of bustling Bangkok, the destruction of the rural farming environment which has been the base of Thai culture for centuries, and the official corruption rampant in the governing of this constitutional monarchy. Hallinan weaves these themes through the novel without preaching, except, perhaps, to explain the strategy used to destroy the farming economy. As an economically developing country without a substantial technological infra-structure, the roles of cell phones and computers are paramount in solving the murders in this story where the skills of children, their lack of requisite experience, and the risks they must surmount, often take center stage.

Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty thriller series and the Junior Bender mystery series.After years of working in Hollywood, television, and the music industry, he now writes full time. He divides his time between California and Thailand.

For the Dead (Poke Rafferty Thriller #6) by Timothy Hallinan (SoHo Crime, November 2014, 353 pages, $26.95/12.99) continues this well-regarded thriller series through its sixth iteration. Despite not having read the first five volumes of the series, I found myself quickly drawn into this convoluted exploration of a society rampant with political corruption and sexual exploitation. Poke Rafferty, a travel writer, has brought together two refugees of the the exploitation and built a family of them, a family he is fiercely committed to defending and strengthening despite the heavy odds against him. I found the book to be highly entertaining, fast-paced, and deeply embedded in a culture both alien to me and endlessly fascinating. I look forward to reading many more volumes from this fine writer. The book was provided to me by the publisher as an electronic galley through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle app.