22 January 2008

A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART, Timothy Hallinan

Poke Rafferty, an American, a farang, is the author of a number of very popular travel books in a series called "Looking for Trouble". Poke lives in Bangkok with Rose, a Thai woman, an ex-prostitute, whom he wants to marry, and a little girl called Miaow, rescued from the streets, whom he wants to adopt. Miaow has herself selected a street boy nicknamed Superman to rescue, but he appears to be a killer.

Able to speak Thai fluently, Poke is accepted in the local community where he lives. Poke's friend Arthit is a rare example of an honest Thai policeman. From time to time he and Poke do each other favours. Arthit tells Poke of an Australian woman who is trying to find her missing uncle Claus Ulrich, and Rafferty agrees to meet with Clarissa. The novel is set just after the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. Many Bangkok people are in mourning, many have lost immediate family. Down on the coast in Phuket bodies are constantly turning up, but Poke doubts that elderly and overweight Claus would have been there.

There are some things that Poke hates: the exploitation of Thai women in brothels and bars, and the child sex industry from which he believes he has rescued Miaow. Following a lead which he hopes will locate the missing man's housemaid, Poke is offered a huge amount of money to track down a stolen item. Something is not quite right and suddenly he finds himself in more trouble than he had ever envisaged.

This was a book that grew on me. I like the way it is structured, the way the section headings relate to the title, its division into short chapters, and the careful choice of provocative chapter titles. I like Poke - there is something of the larrikin about him, from a quirky sense of humour, his willingness to take on the role of knight errant, to his tenderness for both Rose and Miaow, and his empathy for the suffering of the victims of sexual abuse. Hallinan's depiction of Bangkok rings true: where the new and old, wealthy and poor, live right next to each other, where farangs like Poke struggle to understand Thai culture but at the same time try to improve the lives of the homeless and vulnerable.

Not only does Poke Rafferty come alive, but so do other characters such as Rose and the ex-prostitutes she is trying to get employed as domestics, the children Miaow and Superman, Hank Morrison who works hard to get adoption approval for homeless Thai children, and even the reprehensible Madam Wing, the old woman offering a fortune for the retrieval of her stolen property.

A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART raises real questions of morality. Hallinan forces the reader to take these questions on board because not everything that Poke does is right. This is not a book every reader will enjoy. It describes a world in which most of us do not move, one in which sadists and the sexually depraved profit at the expense of women and children, where children are sold in a widespread South East Asian sex industry.

Some people will know Tim Hallinan as the author of the Simon Grist series including EVERYTHING BUT THE SQUEAL (1990), INCINERATOR (1992), THE MAN WITH NO TIME (1993), and THE BONE POLISHER (1995). But as his web site tells, Hallinan had to start again.

A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART is the first in a new series, centering on Poke Rafferty. The second novel in the Bangkok series, THE FOURTH WATCHER, will be released in June 2008, and Hallinan has been contracted for a third. For more details see http://www.timothyhallinan.com/

The website, by the way, contains Hallinan's advice to writers on how to get their book finished, things he's learnt in the process of writing his own.

My rating 4.7

1 comment:

Tim said...

Thank you so much for the extremely kind review -- and glad to see that you remember old Simeon.

Tim Hallinan

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