Thursday, October 30, 2014

For the Dead by Timothy Hallinan

The trinity at the center of this series, Poke, Rose, and Miaow, has our allegiance. I prefer to think of them as a triumvirate because of their power. Poke has soul, Rose is sexy, and Miaow has knowledge of the streets that no child should ever have.

The Rafferty’s use their powers together in this latest installment of the Poke Rafferty series to bring down a corrupt power broker hiding in the police force. They had a little help (well, okay, a lot of help) from Andrew, Miaow’s best mate and school chum, and his contacts in the Vietnamese embassy. Hallinan keeps us riveted as Miaow escapes the nets laid for her and Andrew demonstrates his computer wizardry. They are teens, with all the confusion, angst, and drama of teens, and we ache for them…and their parents.

Hallinan may be unsurpassed in character creation. Miaow, Poke’s adopted daughter from the streets, is brought into clear focus when we listen to her confidence when confronting the hitmen who chase her. She learned too early how to escape the traps of bad men. The personality quirks of Rose and Poke, and their patter together, have the comforting tension of two distinct, discerning individuals who nonetheless respect and love one another. It is a pleasure to see what Hallinan will choose to highlight in his novels, because there is always a ring of truth.

A powerful cop is setting up kills that benefit him financially and “solving” the cases with the help of coerced police lower in the hierarchy. Things start to unravel when Miaow and Andrew buy an iPhone 5 on the black market. In pursuing the aggressor, Poke is mainly impotent except for his rage…but he has intelligent friends with mythic powers, and as a team, they each use their special skills to resolve the issue satisfactorily. Moments of finely-calibrated tension are seeded throughout the novel impelling the reader to the nail-biting finish.

Hallinan introduces us to two unforgettable characters. One is a cop in a backwater precinct who is brought to Bangkok to work on this case because of her extraordinary computer skills. Her name is Kwai Clemente, part Filipino, and she has eyes that people cannot help but comment upon. Though she barely says a word except “yes, sir” in this story, but one cannot help but want to see her again. Writers, take a look at how Hallinan did this. Hallinan creates characters that actually think, breathe, and bleed so that we feel some kind of connection with them.

The second person we cannot forget is the Western bank manager who refers to Thais as “these people” and who, after ordering only for himself at a luncheon, strongly suggests to his dining companions what they should order. “Pink-faced and closely shaven,” James Kalmenson is “a finger-snapper and finger-pointer,” “indulges in…imperious post-colonial behavior,” and “has no obvious shortage of self-regard.” We don’t long to see Kalmenson again because his type is easy to find, alas.

One reviewer calls this series a literary thriller, and I agree with that characterization, though I would put the emphasis on literary. I admit to a short attention span for thrillers as a genre because the characters often seem like cut-outs whose purpose is to propel the action. Hallinan’s thrillers are the opposite. There is riveting action, but it is the characters we come to see.

Poke is a hapless sort. The one time he could have done some damage to a bad guy he didn’t have his gun. (view spoiler) But we’re riveted anyway because—and this is another of Hallinan’s tone-perfect choices--women and children might be victims, and that we couldn’t bear.

If you haven’t read Hallinan yet, you do not have to start at the beginning, though you may wish to go back later to sop up every delicious drop of this mystery series. The Fear Artist (Poke Rafferty #5), for instance, won all kinds of praise among taste-makers for its white-knuckled swerve into international espionage. Hallinan does it all.

You can start reading the series here. What you need to know is that Poke Rafferty is a writer who occasionally sidelines as a private investigator, Rose is a former Bangkok prostitute who has happily retired, and Miaow is a now-teenaged former street kid the two have adopted. This odd threesome has the love and joy and anguish of all the world within their encircling arms.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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