Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan

The Fear Artist

Hallinan has a series featuring Poke Rafferty, an Anglo-Asian male living in Bangkok. In Hallinan’s hands, Bangkok becomes an international center of intrigue focused on its restive Muslim south and juggling its overheated, overaged male spy population who had happily retired themselves only to be called back into harness. More importantly, Hallinan has created his most interesting and powerful female character yet, Ming Li.

Ming Li is the Anglo-Chinese step-sister of Poke and she aids his latest attempt to uncover a psychopath bent on destroying those who know his shadowy past. Young, (female), smart, (vulnerable), and irreverent, Ming Li blasts through accepted modes of spycraft to intuit actions of the players in advance. She does not spare her brother who, as a member of the male ruling class, had no need to learn lessons of body language and intent early on.

What I loved: 1) Poke Rafferty’s humanity. When attacked by a man with a gun, he manages to save his attacker before rushing off to save himself. Fearful as Poke might have been, he was a good man first. Rafferty is willing to believe the best of people he suspects, reserves judgment on their behalf, and stretches to preserve their basic dignity despite their iniquities—not including the really bad man who deserved everything coming to him. 2) Ming Li. Where Rafferty sees ambiguity, Ming Li cuts through the dross with a rapier mind and lays flat broad swathes of bad folk. 3) The way the author ratchets up the tension by having a long-winded Russian collaborator slow the action with pages-long detail at a critical moment when Rafferty (and readers!) just want the facts. It’s a gentle, funny way to tense us up and preserve forward momentum.

Hallinan did very well in raising the temperature of this thriller, but he didn't succeed without flaw: I disliked what I saw as the artificial character of “Treasure” when I first met her. Later, I realized how entirely possible it was to have such a character, neglected, abused, and exploited, when a psychopath is in charge. But the psychopath and the daughter felt like weak links.

And herein lie my only quibble: I would have preferred, were it at all possible, to have a bad man with more ambiguity, depth, and moral equivocation than our bad man here. He was so dark, he seemed like a caricature, and made everyone else a little like a caricature also. I believe the general outline of these characters and places are quite the real thing, with only a few of their sketch lines missing.

But you know what? It would have been a completely different book had Hallinan made it difficult for us with moral ambiguity. One could even argue the bad man wasn't as bad as he made out, since he did something uncharacteristic for his nature at the end of the book, one assumes because he was a father after all. And after the big event in the final pages, only one body was found instead of two, so one of the two that were "taken out" will be back, I fear. Which will it be?

I like Hallinan’s books very much, and when one needs a dose of the heat and flavour of Southeast Asia, or of Thailand's wonderful, complicated "anything goes" acceptance, I recommend having your moral compass realigned by reading a couple of Hallinan's books. Onward [Buddhist] soldier…and tell us more tales.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Looking forward to more mystery and thrilling action from Thailand!

  2. this sounds like fun! I think I have this one in my piles somewhere. Time to dig it out!

    1. It is definitely a thriller, and Hallinan has created some very interesting characters in this one.