The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan is the fifth dark Poke Rafferty thriller set in Bangkok, Thailand (available July 17, 2012).
An accidental collision on a Bangkok sidewalk goes very wrong when the man who ran into Rafferty dies in his arms, but not before saying three words: Helen Eckersley. Cheyenne.
Welcome to Bangkok, a city of many faces and a place where the old and the new meet, and the decent and the sleazy go hand in hand. Bangkok is a city unlike any other in the region; it’s one of those places that you either love or hate, or even love and hate at the same moment. And the author seems to know it inside out, as he also knows all too well the people who live there and those who just come for a visit.
Timothy Hallinan’s hero, Poke, has been living in Bangkok for many years, with his Thai wife Rose and their adopted daughter Miaow. He loves the life, he more or less likes the place, but like most of the foreigners that live in Thailand, he’s quite critical of the farang people that populate its more touristic spots, either residents or mere visitors.
It’s only a couple of extremely wet blocks from their apartment at the point at which Patpong 1 empties into Silom and the usual snarl of traffic, slowed by the line of taxis and tuk-tuks waiting for the sweltering hordes and their compensated companions for the evening. Patpong had its best days, if the adjective is applicable, decades ago, but it retains a kind of overstimulated, faintly gangrenous energy, and the street between the bars is jammed, despite the weather, with sex tourists, gawkers of both sexes, and the ever-present 10 percent of hypocrites who pretend that they came to browse the junk on sale in the night market that stretches down the center of the street and are shocked—shocked, do you hear?—to discover all these bars full of rowdy, half-naked women who seem unusually friendly. There’s no way, the hypocrites’ body language announces, that they’d have come here if they’d known what a sewer it was. They’re usually the ones that stay forever.
As someone who lives in Thailand, though not in Bangkok, I couldn’t agree more. But Bangkok is not only the nightlife and the temples. It’s also the big businesses and the people who arrive there from all over the country looking for a fresh start in life, and it’s also the children of the street; children that are desperate to escape their bleak destiny.
Poke is a man with a big heart, who all of a sudden has found himself in deep trouble, but that doesn’t make him lose his sense of justice and his will to give a helping hand to anyone who needs it. This time though he’s the one in need, and the only person he can really turn to is an old friend of his, Arthit, who happens to be a cop. The man will become his informer from inside the police force, but he won’t be able to do much else to help him. Thus Poke will have to look elsewhere. So he visits some old spooks, leftovers of the Cold War who frequent a bar without a name and whose unofficial leader is a man called Vladimir with a thick accent and a hearty laugh.
“Let’s go,” Rafferty says when he’s standing over him.
“Wery impolite,” Vladimir says. “No hello, no how are you? You’ve met ewerybody already. Except Alfred,” he says, pointing the cleft chin at a short man who has apparently lived on doughnuts for decades. The rolls of fat around his neck are so pronounced that his earlobes float on them.
“Nice to see you all,” Rafferty says.
Alfred purses his lips and gives Vladimir a Look of Great Significance.
“Like I said,” Rafferty says impatiently, “come on.”
“Is problem,” Vladimir says, shaking his head regretfully. “Money problem.”
“You don’t even know what I—”
“Before, when you come here, we have not seen you on teewee.”
“Television,” says Dr. Evil. He smiles. Janos, whose name Rafferty doesn’t remember at first, is doing his best to look like he doesn’t know anyone at the table.
Rafferty says, “Bye,” and turns to go.
But of course he doesn’t, since he needs them just as much as they need his money. Besides he pretty well knows that if there’s a way for one to buy his way out of trouble it is by hiring these spooks of old, especially Vladimir, who says that once he’s bought he remains so.
Some of the most entertaining moments we witness in this novel have to do with Vladimir and his buddies; people who know a lot, and who are willing to do a lot more for a price. Poke doesn’t like them at first, but as time goes by they start to grow on him. And they do have a code of honor that makes them more human than most, since they always take care of each other and their families if anything goes wrong.
Desperate times, they say, require desperate measures, and Poke, having found himself in a situation where not only his life but also that of some other people are at stake, has no other choice but to follow an unconventional path to make things right.
This is a thriller all right, but it’s not only that. The author, using the murder as the starting point, takes the opportunity to talk about what’s going on in the region: the Vietnam war whose shadow still seems to linger over the lives of too many people, the trouble in the south of Thailand, the greedy businessmen and the corrupt politicians who would do anything to win yet another contract and to make yet more money, and about the war on terror; an end that apparently justifies any means.
Papa Hemingway used to say, “Write about what you know.” Hallinan does a hell of a job following his advice.
Lakis Fourouklas has published four novels and three short-story collections in Greek. He’s currently translating his work into English and he blogs at Fiction & More. He also keeps a few blogs in Greek regarding general fiction, Japanese Literature, and Crime Fiction. Follow him on Twitter: @lakisf. He lives in the wilderness of Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Read all posts by Lakis Fourouklas for Criminal Element.