Sunday, September 27, 2009

One Night In Bangkok—A Commentary and Review on The Timothy Hallinan Bangkok Series

It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again.

Timothy Hallinan is a writer’s writer.

What I mean by that is that writers, and I mean, serious writers, not just Tommy-come-lately’s who write whenever they feel like it, can appreciate his daring approach to scribing fiction as 1. He doesn’t use an outline when he crafts his stories, and 2. He’s absolutely dedicated to his craft, doing it for a living instead of just a mere hobby like most.

But when I say that Hallinan is a writer’s writer, please don’t mistake that for me saying that only somebody who actually writes would enjoy his work, as au contraire, mon frère, that’s just not the case. Timothy Hallinan, if anything, is a writer for those who love to be excited and emotionally attached to characters when they read fiction, and honestly, who doesn’t want to be that? I could laud, praise, and slap him on the back even more, but I’ll just let his writing do the talking, as seriously, you wouldn’t understand unless you actually picked up one of his books.

And what books they are! Before the Poke Rafferty, “Bangkok series,” that’s currently making the rounds, Hallinan was already well-known in inner circles for his L.A. private eye capers, the Simeon Grist series. Hallinan has personally said that Grist was great in that you could read any of his books in any order that you liked, but the Rafferty series is very different in that there’s a family involved in the mix, which is pretty much series Seppuku as you’re cornered with the characters now—unless, of course, you plan to kill the whole lot of them off, which Hallinan would never do…at least, not as casually as I just wrote in that last sentence, anyway.
We’re introduced to the world of said family, which along with Poke consists of Rose, Poke’s Thai, ex-hooker girlfriend, and Miaow, a street urchin with a horrible past, in A Nail Through the Heart, which is as auspicious a start to a series that you could possibly hope for.

Poke Rafferty, you see, much like Hallinan himself, is a writer who’s made a home for himself in Bangkok, which of course begs the question, how much of Poke’s life is Hallinan’s and how much of Hallinan’s is Poke’s?

When I interviewed Hallianan over the phone, he told me that he and Poke don’t really have that much in common other than the fact that they’re both writers, and that they both truly love Bangkok. But as a reader who indulges in a lot of fiction and also enjoys reading about an author’s life while they’re writing their book, I’m of course more than a little skeptical about these claims, and believe that there might be a few more commonalities between Timothy and Poke than Mr. Hallinan is willing to let on to.

I wouldn’t know why though as Poke is a perfectly admirable character, if not rough around a few corrugated edges.

Through a strange entanglement of events, Poke, travel writer extraordinaire, famous for his Looking for Trouble series, winds up getting caught in the middle of a murder mystery involving a pedophile in A Nail Through the Heart. He also gets mixed up in a side project dealing with a hideous old woman named Madame Wing with a terrifying past of her own. Oh, and did I mention that Poke is also in the process of adopting street child, Miaow, who may (I’m not going to spoil anything for you) have some kind of past with this pedophile that she may be trying to hide? And just for good measure, Hallinan has also devised the perfect additional problem for Poke to deal with in Boo, another street child who Miaow knows and wants to take in, even though he seems to have a bit of a drug problem. Seriously, there’s almost TOO much story in here to handle, but Hallinan keeps it all tightly under control in that there’s never a time that you’re scratching your head or cursing the writer for providing an interesting story but not enough skill to control it.

In the background of all this though is quite possibly the most important character of all, and I call it the most important because it affects pretty much everything that goes on in the story. And that character is the city of Bangkok itself, which is so vivid, that I think some of the pictures I’ve seen of it may not do it justice if Hallinan’s depiction of it is correct, which I believe it is being that he lives there a large portion of the year.

Hallinan made a risky move setting the plot when he did, which is only a couple of months following the horrible tsunami that struck there. But after learning more about Hallinan as a person, I came to realize that of COURSE he would set the story then. Hallinan, if you’ve never visited his website, The Blog Cabin (, is a man who absolutely loves Bangkok. And why shy away from how the people really are and feel there right now after going through such terrible hardships? Anyone who reads this or any of the books in the Bangkok series, will instantly know that Hallinan doesn’t shy away from the worse parts of Thailand—the good with the bad, that’s Hallinan’s style. Crooked cops, even more crooked politicians, and hookers with hearts of gold, all make appearances in Hallinan’s addictive series, and A Nail Through the Heart is the start of all that, laying the groundwork for all of the characters in such a way that you KNOW you’ll see some of them making a big impact in the upcoming books, such as Arthit, who’s Poke Rafferty’s good friend and cop buddy.

What I find most impressive about A Nail Through the Heart, though, which is something that I now come to expect from Hallinan, is that as much as I enjoyed the book, I also learned something in the process. And that’s because, sprinkled through all of his books, at least in this series anyway, is an overarching message that doesn’t come across as preachy or anything like that at all. In A Nail Through the Heart, it’s the “AT Series,” which is a grotesque strain of child pornography that at one point plagued Thailand. In The Fourth Watcher, it’s counterfeiting in North Korea, and in Breathing Water, it’s the political change that may soon be coming upon Thailand in the upcoming months.

It’s these overarching messages that are the guiding force of each and every novel, but somehow, they don’t manage to make the story plodding, but instead, they make them seem prescient. At the same time, they’re entirely exciting, and at times, make you go, “Oh, no, how is Poke going to get out of THIS mess?”on many frequent occasions. Surprisingly, he doesn’t always get out of his problems at all, and some of these consequences are with him in the second book, The Fourth Watcher, which to me, is the weakest of the three books, but that’s still saying quite a bit, given how much I love the other two books that surround it.

Did Halliman hit a slump with the second book? No, not at all, but whenever a father or other family member with a shady past is thrown into the mix of a story, I typically tend to roll my eyes. Thankfully though, Hallinan didn’t go all 24 on us (24 being the popular FOX show where James Cromwell was revealed to be Jack Bauer’s father, Phillip, evil to the bone, he was) and create a fatherly figure we couldn’t emotionally feel for. The Fourth Watcher finds our hero, Poke Rafferty in even MORE dire straits, as his father, who, very similar to Poke, left everything behind (including his family) to journey to the East, is looking to get himself back into his son’s life. But this reunion isn’t just to kiss and make up, mind you, as Poke’s father knows that Poke is in grave danger over actions that he once did in the past to some very powerful people. If anything, there is even MORE action in this story than in A Nail Through the Heart as there’s something going on on nearly every single page, but the real scene stealers here belong to the family aspect of the story, both with Poke and his good friend, Arthit’s family, as his wife is suffering through a debilitating bout with multiple sclerosis.

One thing I love about Hallinan (among many things, actually) is how if one angle is a tad bit weak in story, he’ll compensate in another, with this book being the character angle. As an additional plus though, we also get to see an angle of North Korea we don’t normally see, which is the counterfeiting end of things. So much is learned in the process of this book that you almost feel like you’re getting a two for one deal here—a great story AND a lesson in modern history. Who could ask for anything more?

Nobody, I’m guessing (Besides the utterly selfish), but we manage to get it in the third book in, Breathing Water, which is arguably Hallinan’s masterpiece thus far. The beauty of Breathing Water is that it’s pretty much an utterly perfect balance of A Nail Through the Heart’s stellar storytelling, and The Fourth Watcher’s heart pounding action, all wrapped up in one tidy; albeit, thrilling book.

How great is this story? So great, that I read the entire book in a single Saturday, that’s how great it is. The book starts off exciting enough. Poke is gambling in a high stakes Poker game against crooks, cops, and a much beloved political gangster (or is that gangster politician?). Poke puts it all on the line—his allowance to stay in Bangkok as a citizen, which by book three means everything to him in that that’s where his family lives—all for the ability to write a book on the gangster, which nobody has up to this point because they were bullied out of it—and that’s putting it nicely!

Undeniably, this is Hallinan’s quickest book in the series to read through, and there’s also a great deal of commentary interwoven in it about the impending possibility that the political scale could soon be overbalanced and tipped over. Most enticing though is that this political change is leading to some personal pessimism by Mr. Hallinan himself that spills across the page like a tipped over inkwell, leading the reader to quite possibly get the most in depth and truest glimmer of Hallinan pouring his heart, soul, and thoughts into his writing ever.

All of Hallinan’s books in the Bangkok series are exceptionally written masterpieces that can’t stand on their own because of the overarching thread that holds them together. But they CAN however stand high (on stilts, even!) on their own merit for being distinctly different but still closely tied to the overall structure of the family life built up in A Nail Through the Heart. I can only imagine where Timothy Hallinan is looking to take the Rafferty clan next in his forthcoming book, which is said to be the one where Rose’s past REALLY plays a major part in the story, possibly fracturing their marriage, and creating a fissure that poor little Miaow might not be able to find a place to live inside.

If you have never read any of Hallinan’s books then you are doing yourself a great disservice. Timothy Hallian is a raconteur who deserves the kind of success that a Dashiell Hammett or a Raymond Chandler once had. And maybe someday, he’ll have it. But until that day, we have these great novels and another series just before it to tide us over. Why don’t you give it a read? Great fiction like this only comes once in great many years.

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