Monday, June 15, 2015

Timothy Hallinan – Master of the Suspense Thriller – The Poke Rafferty Series

Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan, to all of us who have come to know him through his generous and friendly use of social media, has completed the seventh volume in his Poke Rafferty series of thrillers, with The Hot Countries due out in early October. I've just completed reading The Queen of Patpong, fourth in the series, as well as Breathing Water, which proceeded it. I think it's probably time for me to take a look at Hallinan's writing, with particular emphasis on the Poke series. Several month ago I decided I wanted to read all the volumes in the two series Hallinan is currently writing, so I tapped several sources to come up with a full set of them, drawing on electronic, and used book sources. More recently, I've headed backwards to buy the Simeon Grist series, published in the last century and abandoned, according to Tim, because of monumental absence of reader interest in them. The Grist series is described now as cult classics. They should start arriving shortly, and I expect to read and review them during the next year or so.

Hallinan, who now spends about half of each year in Southern California and the other half between residences in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, in Cambodia, is currently the author of two successful crime novel series. In the Junior Bender series, his main character is a thief by profession who, because of his intelligence, honesty, and reliability serves to solve mysteries for other people living on the wrong side of the law. The fifth volume of this series, begun in 2012, will be announced fairly shortly. Junior Bender stories stand out because of their combination of humor and suspense. They present a nice change of pace in crime fiction.

The Poke Rafferty series has all been published since 2009, beginning with A Nail Through the Heart. Before becoming a full-time writer, Tim had a successful career in the film industry and as consultant as well as developing web sites for businesses. When not writing his books, he maintains an active web site and social media presence. One very interesting part of his web site is a section called “Finish Your Novel,” written for those who begin writing a novel, but somehow are never able to finish it, which is what happens to about 98% of all novels begun. In a lengthy series of entries, Tim talks directly to writers, offering significant help with the writing process. He tells me a book length treatment of this topic is in the works. A blog on the web site seems to be largely moribund, but Tim's Facebook page may substitute for blogging.. Tim Hallinan is rare among writers in sharing himself with those of his readers who are interested. He describes himself as doing a great deal of his writing in coffee shops, where I imagine him responding to us, his fans and friends, at least partly as a way to break through to the next dead-on cliff hanger.

In Breathing Water Tim Hallinan takes on several of his major themes as he explores the worlds of child exploitation in the Bangkok environment of buying and selling of children as well as the depths of corruption and the huge gulf between the richest billionaires at the top of the power pyramid in Thailand and the depths of poverty experienced by the majority. He examines the bridges between these two worlds which help to maintain the power structure built on others' poverty. As the novel opens, Poke is involved in a Poker game which includes a Thai billionaire named Pan who has risen from poverty by mysterious means. In a fine card-game set piece, Poke wins the opportunity to write Pan's authorized biography. Within a few hours after this win, Poke receives two telephone calls, one threatening him with death if he writes the book, the other threatening the same end if he doesn't. The twists and turns place Poke and his assembled little family at risk. His descriptions of the opulence of Pan's life in contrast to where he came from create a more nuanced and complex character rather than the run of his villains, which represents a nice advance in character development. Breathing Water is perhaps the darkest of his books I had read, until a picked up The Queen of Patpong.

In each episode of the Poke Rafferty series, Tim Hallinan combines travel writer Poke Rafferty's emerging domestic life with his new wife Rose and their adopted daughter, Miaow. Earlier, or perhaps later, Tim develops some elements of Miaow's background, but The Queen of Patpong can truly be characterized as Rose's book. All seems to be going well for Poke's family. Miaow is eagerly participating in a school production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, while Rose's domestic agency, staffed with formal bar girls from the Patpong sex district of Bangkok is becoming increasingly successful. Suddenly, while the three are eating out together, a menacing stranger from Rose's past life appears at the table. Rose recognizes him and then stabs him in the hand with her steak knife as the three escape, taking a circuitous route to their apartment, thinking they've eluded the interloper. The next morning they find a bloody X across their door. Miaow and Rose both withdraw into themselves, Miaow to nurse her desire to be like all the other kids; Rose into memories of the road that brought her to the place they find themselves.

Isaan Village House

Bangkok Bar 

There follows a long and often difficult interlude in which readers are filled in on Rose's back story, which flashes back to when she was a fourteen or fifteen year old school-girl in her home village in Isaan provicince where her name was Kwan. She is recruited (while her father is simultaneously trying to sell her) by a sexy and glamorous former town girl who has gone to Bangkok. Slowly, but surely, Kwan becomes Rose, as she learns the ropes of first bar dancing and then high end prostitution in the steamy Bangkok sex industry she has since left to marry Poke and achieve her present life, now threatened. The descriptions are harrowing while the suspense, always a feature of Hallinan's best writing, is gripping. The book continues to its page turner, exciting conclusion. Hallinan achieves all this in The Queen of Patpong with more than a nod at Shakespeare's The Tempest, serving as an underpinning for the entire plot, an element not often found in more mundane thrillers.

Tim(othy) Hallinan is a complex, layered, nuanced writer who communicates in a mass market genre often focusing more on the action than on the motivation. There's always plenty of action in a Tim Hallinan thriller. What distinguishes his work, however, is the deep, pervasive set of values governing his principle characters, whether it's Poke Rafferty or Junior Bender. Issues of responsibility, family, honesty, and the search for self-understanding are always present. They govern Poke's relentless efforts to protect and build his wounded bird family within a corrupt political system in a city that's widely recognized as the commercial sex capitol of the world, a city and country he loves, as much for its negatives as despite them. For furthers looks at how Tim thinks and a discussion of the genesis of the Poke Rafferty series, see two fine interviews of him where he discusses his work in Mostly Fiction Book Reviews and The New Mystery Reader.

So here I sit, with an e-galley of The Hot Countries, due out in the fall and one of the six Simeon Grist mysteries from the 1990's, which I bought from Amazon both on my Kindle and the five other Simeon Grist books through Thrift Books (a wonderful source for inexpensive used and out of print books), which should be in my mailbox when we return home, ready to keep reading the complete works. I think I have one or two Junior Bender books still to read, and the newest one is due out later in the year. They will join with Patrick O'Brien, John D. McDonald, Robert Parker, and a few other writers whose works have captured me enough to seek to read their entire body of works. At one time I thought I'd try it with Dickens, but just couldn't manage it. One of the differences I see between Hallinan and some of the others on my list is that his characters seem to continue to develop as they experience their lives, a quality which I didn't find in some of the others. Hallinan deserves to be at or near the top of the heap.