Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney has reviewed four of Timothy Hallinan's fantastic thrillers—and each one has earned Mystery of the Month. His latest Poke Rafferty novel, The Fear Artist, earns that title for August 2012 with its tale of murder on the streets of Bangkok. Writes Tierney, "The pacing is intense, the characters are among the best in modern suspense fiction and the atmosphere is steamy and dangerous throughout."
We talked with Hallinan about tough guys, great books and the seamy Bangkok setting.
Describe your book in one sentence.
It's a thriller set in Bangkok about what happens when someone innocently draws the attention of the War on Terror and becomes possible "collateral damage," which is a 21st-century euphemism for "dead."
If you could take one of Poke Rafferty's characteristics for yourself, what would it be?
Oh, boy. Poke is braver than I am, more resourceful, funnier, younger, better-looking, with better hair . . . I suppose it would be bravery. Most thriller writers are wusses. I just finished a bookstore tour with a well-known (and very good) writer whose series features not one but two brave guys, and it was a real thrill to learn that he's just as big a doily as I am. Here we are, launching our characters across these lethal landscapes with death waiting at every misstep, and in real life we both get flustered when we miss a turn.
What is the best writing advice you've ever received?
Finish. A writer is someone who finishes. Whatever it takes, finish. Inspiration exists, as Picasso said, but it has to find you working.
What is one book everyone needs to read?
This is a hard one. I read pretty much everything. At the risk of being pretentious, I'm going to say Anthony Trollope's six-volume novel The Palliser, which tells one great love story over the course of an entire adult lifetime and sets it against a panorama of life in Victorian England and Ireland. And Trollope could write women, which Dickens (in my opinion) couldn't.
What is it about Bangkok that inspires such great suspense fiction?
Extremes. Bangkok is, as Maugham said about Monaco, "A sunny place for shady people." Bangkok is rich and poor, sinful and spiritual, noisy and serene, heartless and cheerful. And it's growing at the rate of one million people a year as family and community structures in the countryside break down. These people are handmade for exploitation. And yet most Thais manage to maintain a kind of equanimity I can only envy.
How do you conquer writer's block?
By writing my way through it. I don't actually get traditional writer's block. What I get is total book collapse as I write my way into something that seems completely impossible to solve, at which point I toss the book and start something else, only to realize (usually) that I DO know how to solve the problem. This happens to me three or four times on every book. I can always write something—it's just usually not the thing I'm supposed to be writing.
What are you working on next?
The next Poke Rafferty (the sixth), which is tentatively titled For the Dead. I'm in the great phase, which is to say the first 35 to 40 percent, where I haven't made any enormous mistakes yet, or if I have, I haven't recognized them. And a book called King Maybe, which is the fourth book in another series, set in Los Angeles.