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Book Review: The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan

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I spent almost three weeks in Bangkok back in 1973. That was the only time I ever visited… until now. Timothy Hallinan is responsible for this latest trip, and in the middle of a torrential rain no less, with Poke Rafferty for a tour guide.

Hallinan knows Thailand well, since he lives there part-time, but a lot of people live in a lot of places and can’t impart to the reader the sense of immediacy that Hallinan does in his Poke Rafferty novels.

You’ll get wet. You’ll stay wet. You’ll buy and lose umbrellas like you change socks. You’ll drink Singha beer in large bottles. You’ll eat Thai noodles from sidewalk vendors and you’ll weave through pedestrian traffic filled with a melting pot of peoples from all over south east Asia, India, Australia, England and America. The sense of place is that good.

And it should be. Poke Rafferty is a travel writer. He has written what he calls “rough travel” books–Looking for Trouble in the Philippines and Looking for Trouble in Indonesia. He came to Bangkok to write his next book, but fell in love with Rose, the “queen” of the Patpong bars. Together they have adopted a daughter off the mean sidewalks of Bangkok, Miaow. Poke’s life seems to have a will of its own, and at times he feels as if he is in the eye of a typhoon, but Rose and Miaow are his center.

The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty Thriller) is the fifth thriller in the Poke Rafferty series, following the Edgar Nominated The Queen of Patpong. Rafferty is settling into family life and has sent Rose and Miaow to safe ground, as Bangkok is in danger of flooding due to relentless rain. He takes the opportunity of having his apartment empty to do a little painting, carrying cans of paint from the shop, feeling the wire handles cut into his palms and coming to the realization the four gallons of paint weigh more than he could have imagined.

He backs through the doors of the shop on to the wet sidewalk and immediately is bowled over by a very large balding man. The man, Rafferty and two gallons of Apricot Cream and two Gallons of “a sort of rotted eggplant color called ‘Urban Decay–Miaow’s rebellious choice” crash to the sidewalk in the middle of a running crowd.

It takes a moment for Poke to realize that the man has been shot. Before Poke can be whisked away by the security forces who deny, rather forcefully, the man was shot, the man gasps out three words in Poke’s ear; “Helen,” “Eckersley,” and “Cheyenne.” Rafferty, forced down the street, which he notices is now totally empty–“Bangkok is many things, but it’s never empty”–and his papers are examined, threats are delivered and barely avoiding arrest

Rafferty leaves the scene with what just happened replaying in his mind; the jerk of the body atop his when the bullets first struck. The thrill of having been missed. The odd, somewhat military haircut on the man who he guesses is American.

As he makes his way home to his apartment he ponders how so many police could have arrived on the scene so quickly, Bangkok’s traffic does not make for fast response, even with sirens blaring.

A President once said, “The only thing to fear is fear itself”, Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid, It’s patriotic in fact and color-coded. And what are we supposed to be afraid of? Why, of being afraid. That’s what terror means, doesn’t it? That’s what it used to mean. – Randy Newman, “A Few Words In Defense of Our Country”

Rafferty arrives back at his apartment, where he has moved all the meager pieces of furniture into the middle of the room in anticipation of painting the walls, but of course the only paint he has now is stuck to his clothing and gobbed in his hair. He attempts to clean himself up, and not being able to accomplish his task, decides to go to a bar. On the way out the door he runs into Andrew, the Vietnamese kid that Miaow has a crush on.

A few hours later, Poke finds his way through the ever-present rain back home only to discover it has been searched. Items moved just barely, but obviously and thoroughly searched. When there is a knock at the door and it is the tall, arrogant cop from the paint store who takes Rafferty into custody, he is grilled for hours about what the man said. But Poke doesn’t really remember, especially when he is half-drunk.

Poke is set a drift in a Bangkok that is always looking over its shoulder at the rising level of the Chao Phraya river that threatens the worst flooding since the ‘40s. The city of 14 million is on edge. If the news of Islamic terrorists in the south aren’t enough, the Thai government could fall if they can’t avoid the floods. But the rising water isn’t foremost in Pokes mind as he comes to realize there is nowhere for him to hide from the prying eyes and even his family is threatened.

The second time police show up at his door, he manages a daring and desperate escape from the rooftop of his building and begins a new life as a fugitive on the streets. As he learns more about his situation, it becomes apparent that he’s been caught up in the war on terror, and that his opponent is a virtuoso artist whose medium is fear. This man’s talents were honed decades ago where he developed his skills committing atrocities in Vietnam. His only ally is an unemployed spy left over from the Soviet Union’s collapse. And he just may be the most untrustworthy ally of all. His only clue, the man’s dying words and a laundry ticket.

Hallinan not only writes a relentless-as-the-rain paced thriller, sprinkled with an off-beat, cynical humor, but the poignant emotional sides of the characters and the intelligent and beautiful plot and storytelling soak the reader’s heart to the skin. The social issues, starkly and honestly portraying the exploitation of women and children, will haunt you and lend a sadness but ultimately it is an uplifting side to the story. The theme of the good guys becoming even worse than the bad guys, and the danger of forgetting the lessons of the past strike to the core. This is literary fiction of the first order told in the form of an elegant and intricate thriller.

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar and Macavity nominated author of 13 critically praised books – 12 novels and a work of nonfiction. In 2011, in the aftermath of the tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, Hallinan edited an e-book of original short stories by 20 mystery writers, SHAKEN: Stories for Japan with all proceeds going to disaster relief. He also contributed as story to the 2011 collection, Bangkok Noir.

Tim currently maintains a house in Santa Monica, California, and apartments in Bangkok, Thailand; and Phnom Penh, Cambodia with his wife Munyin Choy-Hallinan.

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About The Dirty Lowdown

I was born in Pomona, California at a very young age. I had a pretty normal childhood…or I was a pretty normal child hood if mom is telling the story. I was a paperboy and washed cars. I was a soda fountain jock-jerk and a manic mechanic but my first real job was as a labor organizer in a maternity ward. Then, because of the misjudgment of a judge I spent nearly 10 years in the service of our country mostly on KP duty. Our country sure turns out a lot of dirty dishes. I am a past master at pots and pans. They eventually recognized my real talent and let me wander around some very unfriendly places carrying a big radio that didn’t work. Along the way I took up the bass guitar, jotting down stories, electronic engineering and earned a degree in advanced criminal activities. I spent most of my adult life, if you can call it that, working in the I.T. industry, which I was particularly suited for since we worked in rooms with no windows. On and off I taught in colleges, universities and reform schools as a student teacher… I like smog, traffic, kinky people, car trouble, noisy neighbors, and crowded seedy bars where I have been known to quote Raymond Chandler as pickup lines. I have always been a voracious reader, everything from the classics, to popular fiction, history to science but I have a special place in my heart for crime fiction, especially hard-boiled detective fiction and noir. I write a book and music review blog for all genres at The Dirty Lowdown. And another dedicated to Crime Fiction and all things Noir called Crimeways. It’s named after the magazine that appeared in the Kenneth Fearing classic, The Big Clock. There I write scholarly reviews of the classic hard boiled, noir and crime fiction books from the 20's through today. Mostly I drool over the salacious pictures on the covers. I also write for Tecnorati/BlogCritics where i am part of a sinister cabal of superior writers.