Sunday, December 21, 2014

FOR THE DEAD: Timothy Hallinan's 6th Poke Rafferty "Thriller"

As the mysteries world has gone global, it's also broadened in types of plots and subgenres. The newest book from Timothy Hallinan, FOR THE DEAD, is the sixth one featuring Poke Rafferty, an American living in Bangkok, probably forever by now. And certainly for good. I'd call it a traditional action-suspense crime novel, where groups of criminals struggle fiercely to silence people who are taking a stand against them. Poke, in his roles as dad and husband and writer-with-a-mission, steps up over and over, through increasing exhaustion, to figure out the source of maximum corruption in Bangkok's city government and police.

Soho Crime uses the cover to call the book a "thriller," and this time, I think the term isn't a good fit. To me, "thriller" usually means that feel you get on a really, really big roller-coaster -- the OMG of "I'm going to die here!" (even though there's a rational whisper of "not really, or this company couldn't keep selling tickets) and the racing plunge downhill that tortures your stomach and prevents you from putting the book down. I also think thrillers in general offer terror.

In FOR THE DEAD, the focus is on Poke and Rose's adopted daughter Miaow, once a street waif and now a successful schoolgirl going through those normal mood shifts of adolescence (body changes! a heavy crush! a play to try out for, and if the audition fails, so will her life!). To protect her one real friend Andrew from trouble over losing a cellphone, Miaow digs into her street smarts and helps him buy a used, probably stolen, replacement phone.

But the images on the phone turn out to relate to a pair of recent murders, and suddenly Miaow and Andrew are targets of the killing team.

At the same time, Poke is entering a family crisis -- I won't say what kind, because it's a wonderful surprise when it appears -- and a damaged young girl he'd known during her years of abuse comes back into his life with major needs for assistance and his attention. Last but not least, Miaow and Poke's wife Rose are having portentous dreams. You can feel the river of heat and history that wraps around Bangkok and and through Poke's struggles.
"My daughter," Rafferty says, "is not boneheaded enough to play amateur detective."

Arthit says, "Boneheaded?"

"I do not play amateur detective." [Rafferty] realizes he has leaned forward and uses his feet to push the chair back a few inches. "Or if I do, it's because I have to because the professional detetcives are either not disposed to help or are, umm, constrained --"

"That's a nice way to put it. Constrained, as opposed to corrupt or scared of running up against someone bigger than they are who might sympathize with -- or be on the payroll of -- the other side."

"It's hard to be a cop here," Rafferty says. "An honest one, anyway."

The two men look at each other across a few years of shared history, and the moment makes Rafferty ache.
There is indeed a "ticking clock" for the plot: The people who team up with Poke can't shelter him and his threatened family for long, and the criminals know where they are, where they've been, and way too much about Poke's own vulnerabilities. Things have to resolve within 48 hours or so ... including what to do about the dangerous street waif, Treasure.

But far more important -- and, I think, the reason the Poke Rafferty mysteries are so compelling -- is the struggle for Poke to figure out what he's doing in terms of the people he loves, and especially, how to loosen his protective grasp of his daughter Miaow far enough to let her grow up. Like the rest of us, he wrestles with that major issue while also coping with his own life, including his friendships and alliances in Bangkok.

I think FOR THE DEAD is way more than a thriller -- it's international crime fiction, and it's heartache. And the author, in an Afterword, promises us more of the same, at least until Miaow grows up. Assuming, that is, that Poke can keep enough criminals and hot-blooded classmates away so that she has the chance.

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