Timothy Hallinan is a writer’s writer. What I mean is writers, serious writers, recognize the excellence of the Hallinan approach to writing fiction, his daring. Committed to his craft, Hallinan strives, tirelessly, to improve it, which shows in each new novel.
Timothy Hallinan writes for readers who want excitement and emotional attachment to characters. He understands how to weave a series. Before the Poke Rafferty, “Bangkok Series,” Hallinan wrote the “Simeon Grist Series.” Grist is a Los Angeles private eye. Hallinan says Grist was great, “in that you could read any of his books in any order that you liked.”
The “Bangkok Series” is different. There’s a family involved in each book. The family lets Hallinan corner the reader, with recurring characters and existing emotional ties.
The Rafferty family includes Rose, a former Bangkok prostitute-as-girlfriend. Poke and Rose adopted a daughter, Miaow, a former street urchin, with a horrifying past. “A Nail Through the Heart,” the first book in the “Bangkok Series,” introduces the family.
“A Nail” is a memorable start to a series, with everything you could hope to read in A-list fiction. Poke Rafferty is a travel writer, who settled in Bangkok. His adventures are off the beaten track.
How much Hallinan is in Poke? “Not much,” says Hallinan. “Poke writes about travel, I was in public relations. Beyond writing and loving Bangkok, Poke and I are unalike.”
I’m sceptical about these claims. As an insatiable reader, including much fiction, I wonder about authors and their characters. Often, I find authors and characters overlap much more than admitted, by readers or writers.
Robert B. Parker is Spenser. Philip Marlowe is a wishful Raymond Chandler. Dashiell Hammett was “The Fat Man,” but idealized himself as “The Thin Man.”
In Poke Rafferty, I sense much overlap with Hallinan, despite his claims otherwise. I wonder why. Poke is admirable, if rough around his corrugated edges.
“A Nail Through the Heart,” the first book in the “Bangkok Series,” involves a strange entanglement of events. Poke falls into a murder mystery involving an infamous paedophile. An old woman, Madame Wing, with a terrifying past, also attracts the interest of Poke. Poke and his wife, Rose, are adopting a former Bangkok street urchin, Miaow, who may have crossed paths with the paedophile.
Then there’s Boo, another street child, a friend of Miaow, with a drug problem. He pops up to agitate everyone. Boo is the ideal extra problem and distraction for Poke.
There’s almost too much story to handle, in “A Nail.” Still, not once do you scratch your head or cursing the writer for a great story, but not the skill to manage it. Hallinan stays in control, throughout “A Nail.”
The leading role in all “Bangkok Series” books is the city. Bangkok affects all parts of the story. Hallinan conjures vivid pictures, of the city, which do justice to its beauty and intrigue.
“A Nail” takes place shortly after the 2005 tsunami hit Thailand. The timing was natural for Hallinan. He loves Bangkok. He won’t shy away from the hardships those who live in the city face. He wants the reader to know and understand the good and the bad of Bangkok. The tsunami was one of many horrible hardships faced and overcome by those living in the city.
Hallinan recounts tails of crooked police, more crooked politicians; good-natured hookers; mendicants using babies as props, to increase their take or drug addled and abused street urchins. Such characters and worse appear in each “Bangkok Series” novel. There’s also Arthit, an honest Bangkok police officer; he’s best friend to Poke.
What I find most impressive about “A Nail,” though, and something I now expect from Hallinan, is that as much as I enjoyed the book, I earned much reading it. Learning from Hallinan fiction is easy. He sprinkles details, throughout each book, in the series, and his message is never preachy.
“The AT Series,” of DVDs, is the focus of “A Nail.” These DVDs are infamous for grotesque sadomasochism. The “AT Series” targets paedophiles and no one else.
In “The Fourth Watcher,” the second novel in the “Bangkok Series,” Hallinan focuses on currency forgery by North Korea. The most recent novel, in the series, “Breathing Water,” the coming political change, in Thailand, is the focus.
The Hallinan messages are serious: child pornography, crime and political corruption. These messages guide the novels, but Hallinan doesn’t preach and his stories don’t tread wearily. In many ways, the novels are perceptive, causing much reflection about Thailand and America, the family and the individual, as well as exciting.
Poke doesn’t always escape his problems. Some problems carry over, from novel to novel. In “Breathing Water,” for example, a problem that vanished, at the end of “A Nail,” returns.
The second, of the three “Bangkok Series” novels, may be the weakest. Did Hallinan slump, when writing “The Fourth Watcher”? No, he uses an iffy topic.
Whenever a father or family member, with a shady past, shows up and falls into the mix of a novel, it’s easy to roll my eyes. In adventure fiction, family members often forebode a sloppy novel, a “quickie” to earn royalties. Not for Timothy Hallinan, who creates a father character to which readers can identify.
In “The Fourth Watcher,” Poke Rafferty is researching a new book about a dangerous side of Bangkok. Rose and Miaow get into trouble with the US Secret Service. The Secret Service tracks phony money, from North Korea, to Bangkok; unintentionally, Rose and Miaow become involved.
If this weren’t trouble enough, a new character, Ming Li abducts Poke. She delivers him to his father, Frank, whom Poke despises. Still, Poke and his father are much alike: both left everything behind, including families, to journey to the East.
A third source of trouble appears. Colonel Chu, the mortal enemy of the father, quickly makes life for the Raffertys hellish. Can Poke and his family escape unscathed?
Smooth prose, appealing characters and a twisting action-filled plot make this thriller a standout. “The Fourth Watcher” is more suspenseful than “A Nail.” There’s a heaping dose of love, too, artfully written in shades of grey by Hallinan.
“The Fourth Watcher” shows a side of North Korea that most Westerners seldom notice. North Korea exists as a political irritant and cultural backwater, not as a source of crime that undermines other nations. Its currency forgery, as backdrop, opens eyes and minds to its various forms of deviance.
“Breathing Water,” the newly released third novel in the “Bangkok Series,” may be the best of the lot. The novel opens on a young woman receiving instructions on how to beg, in Bangkok. She’s given a baby, to create sympathy, and told to pinch the baby: a crying baby means larger donations.
Elsewhere, Poke wins a bet and gets to write the biography of Khun Pan, a top gangster, in Bangkok. When the media celebrates the promise of much more information about Pan, an anonymous caller threatens the Rafferty family: don’t write the biography or suffer the results.
Shortly after the threatening call, gun-wielding men force Poke into a car. They demand he write the biography, of Pan. They tell him he must interview a list of women and men that they provide.
Poke manages to keep himself and his family alive, in this bizarre, intricate story, which moves rapidly. In “Breathing Water,” Poke resembles the Cary Grant character in “North by Northwest.” The subtle, relentless escalation of tension, in the story, and its poignant conclusion confirm Hallinan is a remarkable storyteller and writer.
Timothy Hallinan creates one exciting scene after another, novel after another. His characters show depth. They’re honestly funny. The reader shares their fright. A Hallinan character survives, narrowly, and the emphasis is surviving against the odds.
Hallinan writes cleanly. He knows when and he knows how to extend a description or conversation among characters. Best, of all, he knows when to pull back, letting terseness solidify the image and the imagination of the reader.
Reviewers agree Hallinan outdoes himself in “Breathing Water.” Exotically set, the story is intriguing and compelling; the noose of threat tightens and a compulsion to know how the Raffertys escape overtakes the reader. You need to know more, know all you can, which glues you to “Breathing Water.”
Hallinan promises at least two or three more entries in the “Bangkok Series.” One or two current characters, he teases, will leave, maybe for good and maybe not. Other, equally interesting characters will appear, when Hallinan and the reader least expect it.
Hallinan has another series on the horizon, too. Junior Bender, who lives in the LA area, solves crimes for criminals. “Bender holds my interest,” says Hallinan, “tightly.”
The mystery, surrounding Timothy Hallinan, is why he’s not a household name. His novels focus on a loving family, which finds much adventure in Thailand, one of the loveliest countries in the world; he doesn’t need blood and guts or to shock. For his writing and content, Hallinan stands between Elmo “Dutch” Leonard and Robert B. Parker.
More important, perhaps, Hallinan easily falls into the great company of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. This might be the biggest pay-off of his hard work. Hallinan is different from Chandler and Hammett, but there’s much room for him in that class.
Click on title, below, to read a review of book by Timothy Hallinan
Crashed, the first book in the Junior Bender series.
The Fear Artist, a Poke Rafferty thriller set in Bangkok.
Fourth Watcher, a Poke Rafferty thriller set in Bangkok.
Breathing Water, a Poke Rafferty thriller set in Bangkok.
Nail Through the Heart, a Poke Rafferty thriller set in Bangkok.
Queen of Patpong, a Poke Rafferty thriller set in Bangkok.