Monday, October 1, 2012

Book Review of Timothy Hallinan's The Fear Artist

The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan

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 is interrogated by a suspicious Major Shen of Thai security, who alludes to Poke's past brushes with trouble. Shen demands to know Poke's relationship with the man outside the paint store and what he heard. Poke remembers that it was a woman's name and a city, but he can't recall it exactly. After Shen reluctantly releases him, Poke kicks in a door to see his observers behind the surveillance mirror and discovers a familiar American Secret Service agent, Richard Elson, who looks frightened. Poke doesn't recognize the older American in the room, "a ball of fat topped by a thatch of unruly reddish-gray hair that's been slapped any old way on top of a fat red face.... Protruding from each nostril is a tuft of red hair so substantial that Rafferty imagines himself grabbing them in his fists and chinning himself on them." It's Haskell Murphy, formerly associated with the infamous Phoenix Program, designed to fight terror with terror in Vietnam. In no way is he a good man for Poke to cross.

In predominantly Muslim southern Thailand, Buddhists are being beheaded, run over, and bombed on a weekly basis. The response of the government to this terror and the riots it has spawned has been as ineffective as its muddled and contradictory response to Thailand's worst monsoon season in 60 years. In fact, the weather is the perfect metaphor for Poke's situation: if the city drowns, or if Poke is killed by the Americans or the Thais, it's just collateral damage. Poke needs to run.

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.

Timothy Hallinan
Like writers Colin Cotterill and John Burdett, Hallinan sets his series in an exotic foreign location and then writes with insight, style, and wit. Hallinan has a gift for creating memorable characters, a turn of phrase, dialogue, and descriptions that merit re-reading. (Faces in a dark bar patronized by spies are "pasteurized by the gloom," and "the bartender lifts his chin in a silent query, as though the sound of his voice is classified.") There are some disturbing scenes of torture appropriate to the plot. Suspense builds to a clever ending.

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.


  1. Just a big loud thank you for such a wonderful review. This totally and completely made my day, if not my entire week.

  2. Hey, I'm the one who should be thanking you, Tim. Bangkok is a fascinating place, and then to have an intelligent and witty thriller series, full of great characters, set there is a treat! I can't wait for the next one.

    I'm also looking forward to reading the upcoming print editions of your Junior Bender series about "a high-end burglar who moonlights as a private eye for crooks, in Los Angeles, California" ( Bonnie Riley says Junior is very fun.