Trouble is Poke Rafferty's expertise. Before he arrived in Thailand, he had written two off-the-beaten-path travel books, Looking for Trouble in the Philippines and Looking for Trouble in Indonesia. But Poke doesn't need to look for trouble in Bangkok. It has no trouble finding him. In Timothy Hallinan's The Fear Artist, trouble runs him down outside a Bangkok paint store.
Poke's wife Rose, a beautiful former Patpong dancer, and their adopted 12-year-old daughter Miaow have left Bangkok to visit Rose's family. While they're gone, Poke is going to paint their apartment. Apricot Cream for Rose; Urban Decay for Miaow. He is walking out of the store carrying the paint when some pedestrians run past. A "once-tough" American or German man in his sixties knocks him down. Poke hears noises like the cracks of a bat hitting a ball. Before they can stand up, the man whispers three words and dies. Almost instantly, policemen and a TV crew appear. The police hustle Poke away. The blood is just a nosebleed, they say. The man will be fine. Right.
Poke looks for help from a colorful assortment of characters that includes his 17-year-old half-sister Ming Li; Arthit, a Thai cop and Poke's best friend; Dr. Ratt, who runs a mobile clinic of doctor-nurse teams in Toyota Corollas; and an unreliable former Russian agent named Vladimir, whose voice is "liquid and heavy and saturated with melancholy," as he fondly recalls a CIA friend of Poke's, "I try to kill him many, many time." Vladimir is not sanguine about Poke's chances. If a snake tells Poke he's a horse, Poke will probably look for a saddle, Vladimir scolds.
|When Poke arrived in Bangkok, it was "just one jaw-dropper after another."|
But Poke is less naïve than Vladimir thinks. Poke has spent years in the company of powerless people who do what they say they do, but he recognizes the evil that happens in the dark, when the rich and powerful's acts don't match their words. The danger of the "Age of the Spook" is a theme of The Fear Artist, as well as the responsibility a parent has to a child and how that parent shapes a child. Various parent/child relationships are examined: the longing Poke has for the absent Miaow, who's going through a normal phase of rebellion; the unsettling attention Murphy bestows on his troubled 12-year-old daughter Treasure; the skills Poke's father Frank, who once worked for a Chinese Triad, taught Ming Li; the conflicted relationship Poke has with Frank; and the formality of the love between Miaow's best friend Andrew and his Vietnamese diplomat father. Children and women––young, blind, deaf, working the sex trade or addicted to drugs––are shown as both vulnerable and resourceful.
The Fear Artist is the fifth book in the Edgar- and Macavity-nominated Poke Rafferty series. It's not necessary to read previous books before reading this one, because author Hallinan divulges enough to bring a reader up to speed without ruining earlier plots. That said, you'll probably want to read the others; the first is 2007's A Nail through the Heart. Simply put, this is a first-rate series, and The Fear Artist is a superlative read.
Note: I received a free digital copy of Timothy Hallinan's The Fear Artist. It was published in July 2012 by Soho Crime.