Monday, November 5, 2018

Nighttown by Timothy Hallinan - Book Review

If you like your crime fiction detectives smart, funny, complex, and insightful and haven’t yet met Tim Hallinan’s Junior Bender, Nighttown (Soho Crime, 385 pages, November, 2019, $26.96/14.99) you’ve been missing a rising star whose latest outing, the seventh in the series, takes him to new heights of risk while continuing to grow and evolve as a character you will quickly come to treasure. Bender’s first arrival in Herbie’s Game won the 2015 Lefty Award for best comic mystery novel. Hallinan’s humor is character and plot driven, rather than built on the wisecrack. His characters are quirky and real, while protagonist Junior Bender, sometimes clueless about the characters he loves the most, earnestly works towards solving the problems of the problematic.

Bender lives mostly at night in the shadows, befitting because of the shady nature of his clients themselves. You see, he is the go-to detective for criminals who can’t seek help from the police to solve their problems. Junior, at once a deeply moral person and an accomplished thief who has never been caught but is always on the police radar, must navigate the dark world between people who have no compunction against killing him if he fails, and his own strong drive for stability and true love. Out of these internal conflicts emerges a fully-rounded person capable of both compassion and deviousness. His sense of justice is superb, fitting perfectly with the conscience he must battle all the time along with maintaining his ethical sense of responsibility.

Nightown Opens with Junior in a 1908 house once owned by a recently deceased isolate, one of Hallinan’s typically wounded women. Junior’s been paid $25,000, half of his offer for this job, to steal something, but he’s not certain why it has value. He does, however, know that he’s not the only person in the hunt. The book opens with Junior casing the house filled with Hallinan’s unique smells, creaking stairways, and off-beat observations of the world that only Junior Bender can fully inhabit. Furthermore, it soon emerges that Ronnie, Junior’s latest love, has a two year old son whose father has kidnapped him and kept him away from her. That’s the secret she’s been keeping ever since she was introduced to the plot line several books ago. I wonder though whether Junior’s ex-wife and daughter, her boyfriend, and the two computer wizard girls have disappeared to in this volume. I can only wish they return later in counterpoint to Ronnie.

Hallinan’s language sets him aside from every other contemporary fiction writer I’ve encountered. Especially with Junior Bender, the literate, sometimes off the wall imagery, similes and metaphors fly out of Juniors mouth or race through his head as if such a brilliant rif were immediately available to the rest of us, too. His dialogue sparkles as it defines class and character, combing with descriptive language to present a whole picture. There’s a joy in reading Hallinan, in simply taking in the breadth of what appears to be casual knowledge but must actually reflect the distillation of hours of careful research and wide, inclusive reading. As Hallinan manages to pack away two one hundred thousand word novels a year, most of it must come from some easily tapped internal source, but its breadth is enormous, suggesting deep familiarity with a wide range of literary material from outside his genre. How many detective fiction books mention Hieronymus Bosch?

Hallinan’s children, as odd, broken and twisted as they may be (Anime, Lilli, Eaglet, and his daughter Rena in the Bender series as well as Poke Rafferty’s wife Rose, daughter Mia and her street and school friends in the Bangkok-based Poke Rafferty thriller series) are real and seem alive. Junior may be the only character in the genre, at least the only one I’ve met, who likes nice kids, and talks to them as if they were humans. Robert A. Heinlein did that in science fiction a lifetime ago, but children are rare in genre fiction. Hallinan creates believable, quirky children today, developing Junior in whole, over time, as a man to whom family is real and matters, despite his own issues with personal reliability in relationships.

Timothy Hallinan

Timothy Hallinan has led an interesting and varied life, working in public relations, in the film industry, and doing corporate consulting on media and outreach. He is the author of three detective series. His first, the Simeon Grist novels were mostly published in the 1990’s, with a revival this year in a new and inventive (almost fantasy) manifestation. The Junior Bender series and the Poke Rafferty series have each been running at the pace of one novel each per year for the past several years. Hallinan lives in Los Angeles and Bankok, both of which add color and variety to his writing.

The convoluted plot of Nighttown (Soho Crime, 385 pages, November, 2019, $26.96/14.99) includes many of the characters that have appeared in previous Bender tales. As usual in series fiction, it’s not necessary to have read the previous versions to “get” this one, but I defy you not to go back to pick the earlier ones up and read them, too. I don’t think Hallinan’s characters emerge fully drawn from the head of Zeus, but they maintain an inner consistency, while growing, too. Nighttown is a particularly strong entry, deserving your attention and demanding your respect for the character and the mind creating him. Hallinan throws insights away that others, both writers and readers, would spend a lifetime seeking to discover. I read Nighttown in a galley version sent to me by the author, who, while I’ve never met him, is a frequent correspondent whom I consider to be a friend. I highly recommend the book.

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