Thursday, October 20, 2016

Fields Where They Lay by Timothy Hallinan - Book Review



Junior Bender is in a seasonal funk as Christmas approaches. It's three days before Christmas, he hasn't done a thing to prepare, and would just as soon not have to think about it. When his old client and adversary, gangstress Trey Annunziato calls in what she considers a favor, he must meet with a real estate mogul named Tip Poindexter at a local country club for lunch. Poindexter turns out to be an alias for a Russian gangster who rapidly becomes Vlad. While possessing a thin veneer of American real estate wealth, he's a dangerous man to have as a friend or an enemy, and he needs someone with Junior's skills to help him learn who's been looting a failing suburban mall he owns. Junior must solve Pointdexter's problem while discovering some ways to resolve his ambivalence surrounding Christmas. So begins Timothy Hallinan's fine Christmas novel Fields Where They Lay (SoHo Crime, October 2015, 385 pages, $25.99/14.99).

Many thrillers and thriller writers are very strongly plot driven with a cliff hanger to end every chapter driving readers into a headlong race to the end. Other writers are so character driven that plot becomes lost in the explorations of the character. Hallinan stands almost alone, in my experience, for the balance between action, plot, and character found in his novels. They are not without their dramatic tension, which at times becomes almost unbearable. However, they are always balanced between the motives, ideals, and abilities of the protagonist and the demands of his tasks. (One wonders what would happen if he tried to inhabit a female hero.) Junior Bender is a thief, a thief with honor that sometimes becomes compromised because he works with other criminals, people who cannot go to the police for help. He also deeply values family life, but has difficulty maintaining adult relationships with women. His precocious pre-teen and teen characters are a total delight, as they live their private, sometimes dangerous, lives separated from the adults around them. These conflicts within Bender's life add to his depth of character, his interest, his anxiety, his faults, and his very great strengths. They also make for far more interesting reading than the run-of-the-mill Jack Reacher lonely gun-slinger come to town solve the problem and leave, character. (My favorite one of these remains Jack Schaeffer's classic western, Shane.)

Typically, a Junior Bender novel (there have been five, beginning with Herbie's Game, which won a Lefty Award as the Best Comic Novel of 2014) opens with Bender in the midst of a burglary in the home of an unpleasant, possibly dangerous, collector, by nefarious means, of some rare and extremely valuable piece of art, jewelry, or other ill-gotten rarity when the situation begins to deteriorate and he must hurry to finish the job and escape. Sometimes he succeeds, only to find later trouble or fails, in which case he's forced to complete some sort of nastiness for the former victim. Junior, who comes from a difficult background that often figures in his story, has been a thief since he met his mentor, Herbie, as a prowling pre-teen.
Now in his late thirties, he has been successful enough to have bought an elaborate hidey-hole in a Korean owned apartment complex, squirreled away plenty of money, acquired and lost a wife, produced a precocious, insightful, funny daughter named Rina, and become the go-to problem solver for a strange (and possibly dangerous) set of underworld characters. He is currently romantically involved with the mysterious Ronnie, who he is discovering he loves, making his relationships even more complex. His books are sprinkled with independent, smart kids, needy women, broken souls, and lots of think-twice-before-you-laugh wounded characters. Between action sequences, we are treated to periods of insights Junior has developed through his intelligence and experience. In Fields Where They Lay, within a typically ornate, convoluted plot we are treated to Junior's ambivalence surrounding Christmas, which mirrors the anxiety many of us feel.


Junior finds himself spending the three days before Christmas largely observing the diminishing crowds in the Edgerton Mall, a downwardly mobile suburban mall in a dingy exurb of Los Angeles, through numerous computer screens of the security office and the eyes of several small store proprietors whom he befriends, one of whom winds up mysteriously dead. The mall also has two Santa's, one at each end. One of the Santa's is a nasty, child-hating man whose loathing is reciprocated. The other Santa, a Jewish man named Shlomo, recounts what becomes an interesting, seemingly irrelevant back-story about three soldiers lost behind the lines in Germany during the winter of 1944. They stumble upon a house where a young woman is in labor, as they become the visitation of the three wise men in the Christmas story. At the same time, Junior's new love, Ronnie, has disappeared to try to resolve her own issues with the holiday. Watch for the resolution of this plot line in a future Junior Bender tale. All the diverse threads of this novel come together in the end, but the path isn't always easy and new threats to Junior's future stability are surely introduced.

Timothy Hallinan


Timothy Hallinan, after a career in the television and film industry as a publicist, a consultant on building web sites for televison programs, and an expert in building audiences, became a full-time writer. He now lives both in southern California and in southeast Asia. He presently writes two hugely different thriller series, building and maintaining two different characters, each both believably human and deeply complicated. The Poke Rafferty series, so far consisting of seven novels set in Bangkok, Thailand feature a travel writer settled into a life married to a former bar girl and prostitute named Rose, and having adopted a street child, Miaow. Poke's love of his family and Thai community life comes into conflict with the corrupt government, the sex industry, and child exploitation. All make an already complex life more difficult. In tone, content, setting, and emphases, these two series are quite different. The similarities include the main characters' almost obsessive love of family, and great, fast-paced writing.

Fields Where They Lay (SoHo Crime, October 2015, 385 pages, $25.99/14.99) by Timothy Hallinan is a Christmas novel and the fifth in the Junior Bender series. As a seasonal novel, it diverges somewhat from the family/crime problems often confronting the hero, while still touching on them and opening some new possibilities for future entries. It sometimes seems a little discursive, but all the threads converge into a completely satisfying resolution which may even help those of us who harbor similar reservations about the holidays. Coming to know Timothy Hallinan, through his writing and his lively Facebook personna has been a delight for me as a reader and a fan. I've never met Hallinan, but feel I've come to know him through his revelations. I was provided an Advanced Reader's Copy of the book by the author, but read it an electronic version provided by the publisher through Edelweiss on my KindleApp. I highly recommend Fields Where They Lay.