Monday, November 28, 2016
Everything but the Squeal by Timothy Hallinan – Book Review
In Everything But the Squeal, Timothy Hallinan continues with the third in his (so far) six book series written toward the end of the last century. (Everything but the Squeal by Timothy Hallinan, perhaps best offered as part of this three volume set.) Simeon Grist has decided to take on the task of finding thirteen year old runaway Aimee Sorrell, whose mid-western parents have sought him out. Facing a defensive and obviously dysfunctional family, Simeon is nevertheless moved to accept.
In a wonderful set-piece chapter featuring Simeon's group of aging, perpetual graduate student friends from his university days, Hallinan creates a picture of the family as a social construct based on the need of medieval families to produce a number of children to survive rather than the romanticized family unit of American kids of the late twentieth century. Halinan's willingness to take his time letting his point emerge combines with his quick stiletto-like humor effectively turns a history lesson into far-from-sober analysis of problem families. This kind of scene is only one of the elements making Timothy Hallinan a master of detective fiction rising to the quality of real literature. His mixture of an action oriented, cerebral hero with twisted, cruel, and dangerous villains provides readers with opportunities to think and to experience the vicarious thrill of the chase as well as plenty of action filled gore and child exploitation.
As the story emerges, a missing thirteen year old girl, an unhappy twisted, family, a body in the morgue, and a long weary search, so do the themes that Hallinan chases in each of the three series he's written or writes – the difficulty of developing and maintaining healthy relationships, particularly family ones, in a world gone wrong in so many ways. His children spark with mordant humor, quick wit, lively intelligence, and deep wounds. His heroes would be knights in shining armor if they weren't a part of the world they wish to drive out of the dangerous perimeter they inhabit between themselves and a strong, solid family. Whether its Junior Bender, Poke Rafferty, or Simeon Grist, the hero is smart, witty, resourceful, and gifted, but always flawed in ways that make sure he will get himself into trouble.
This is the third Simeon Grist novel I've read, of six published at the end of the last century. It contains more suspenseful violence than either of the two newer series do, while setting the stage for both the succeeding characters. Grist is a perpetual student holding several advanced degrees which do him absolutely no good in terms of his ability to earn a living, but make his insights into the dark world he often inhabits more likely to tweak the mind as his adventures stimulate the fear and horror hormones. Meanwhile the mordant, literary wit flies, and anyone who can enjoy the wrenching dislocation will glory in Hallinan's prose as well as his taught plots and quick moves. In Nothing but the Squeal another Hallinan concern is strongly on display, child sexual exploitation. It has struck me that Hallinan's treatment of children, especially the dialogue, reminds me of Robert A. Heinlein, the great science fiction writer. His adolescents, too, are smart as whips, courageous, adventurous, and trouble prone. Hallinan's are more haunted by the dangers for children present in today's world.
Hallinan's writing is highly cinematic. In fact, given the breadth and quality of his writing and the almost script-like dialogue and description he writes, it surprises me that none of his characters have made it to the big screen, let alone today's always voracious television market. His writing meets my primary criterion for excellence, it has what musicians call “drive.” It draw the reader's sensibility onward fully engaging all the senses and managing responses without too obvious writerly tricks. He's a master of character reveal through taught dialogue. He's patient enough to linger over setting, using plenty a descriptive passages to capture local atmosphere without ever allowing the tale to drag. vulnerable, and powerful. From Space Cadet, a young adult novel to Stranger in a Strange Land, an important book to the counter culture of the 1960's, Heinlein dominated my adolescence and later. I think that his writing still animates much of my own thinking. Like Heinlein, Hallinan creates his own world, peoples it with sometimes outrageous, but always believable characters, and creates highly memorable situations in which to test their mettle.
Reading in the Simeon Grist series not only provides bang-up thrillers a little more rough and raw than Hallinan's later books, it also shows shadows hinting of the characters to come, in the two later series. Both Poke Rafferty and Junior Bender, a writer of travel books and a thief, have their genesis in Simeon Grist, a private detective caught in perpetual land between his yearning for action and his capacity for deep thought. What better intellectual and emotional place to put a private detective could there be? I highly recommend Everything but the Squeal by Timothy Hallinan both for its stand alone excellence and for its importance in helping readers capture the totality of his work as writer.
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