By Kay Kendall
Tim Hallinan is a writer’s writer. Search for him online and you will find platoons of famous authors who admire Hallinan’s work. During his stellar career, he has produced three series of thrillers with outstanding reviews. Surprisingly, his is not yet a household name, but that is about to change. As the year draws to a close, 2014 holds promise as Hallinan’s breakout year.
For one, there’s the success of his Junior Bender series, starring an LA-based thief who moonlights as a private eye for other criminals. Book two in the series, LITTLE ELVISES, was nominated for the Silver Falchion (August 2014) and is also a current nominee for the Shamus, to be presented at Bouchercon 2014 in Long Beach, California. Book three, THE FAME THIEF, was nominated for the Lefty award at Left Coast Crime (March 2014). Were that not enough, the series has
been bought for NBC television primetime by British actor and comedian Eddie Izzard. The pairing of Izzard and Junior Bender is inspired. Bender, the master thief, has comic characteristics as well as deep wells of sorrow he occasionally dips into, more as he ages through the novels. Izzard will produce and possibly star in the new series. Beyond Junior Bender, let’s not forget Hallinan’s incredible Simeon Grist series, featuring a hard-boiled, over-educated private eye.
But what may cement 2014 as Hallinan’s breakout year, is the latest book in his Poke Rafferty series, featuring adventurous travel writer Rafferty who has settled down in Bangkok, Thailand, with his reconstructed family comprised of wife Rose, a former Bangkok bar girl, and their adopted daughter, Miaow. Debuting on November 4, book six of the series—FOR THE DEAD—focuses on teenaged Miaow’s struggle to reconcile her former life on the Bangkok streets with her current circumstances—living with Poke and Rose in comparative luxury. Miaow’s boyfriend is the son of a diplomat, and they attend a pricey private school. Still, Miaow wonders where she really belongs, and why crooked police are trying to kill her.
I was introduced to the works of this phenomenally talented and entertaining writer in 2010, the year Hallinan’s fourth Poke Rafferty thriller was published. THE QUEEN OF PATPONG delves into the traumatic journey of Poke’s wife Rose from impoverished rural daughter to bar girl (the term sex worker might also fit) to middle-class wife, the latter thanks to Poke’s love for her. The countless accolades piled on this thriller snagged my interest in Hallinan’s writing, and I’ve been a fan ever since.
The Poke Rafferty series can be harrowing to read. Hallinan pulls no punches when he describes the dire poverty and violence of Thailand, the social and political injustice, and the widespread corruption from top to bottom in this struggling society. Hallinan spends half his year in Bangkok and the other half in southern California and knows whereof he writes. Not for the faint of heart or delicate reader, the Poke Rafferty series will take you places in fiction that you might never venture in real life. But you are sure to be vastly rewarded for your travels.
Few thrillers plunge deeply into human emotions, but Hallinan’s do. His skill at building tension and character all the while adding comic asides is unparalleled. Sprinkled throughout the Junior Bender and Poke Rafferty novels are passages that show extraordinary insight into human nature. In short, he is a writer to read and treasure.
Hallinan graciously agreed to answer a few questions for THE BIG THRILL.
In your latest thriller, FOR THE DEAD, you return to Thailand and Poke Rafferty’s family. You live about half of each year in Bangkok. How do you explain your fascination with Asia?
I actually explain it in the second Poke Rafferty book, THE FOURTH WATCHER, except that I give the story to Poke. When my father was seventeen years old, back in the 1930s, he ran away to China. He lived there until the Communists made it dangerous for an Anglo, when he went to the Philippines, and then he came home, married my mother, and served as one of the country’s top test pilots through WW II. He never, ever talked about his time in Asia, and he never ate Chinese food again as long as he lived. My mother was half-convinced he had another family in China.
So it was kind of a mystery, and he’d brought home an old metal box that I pried open whenever no one was around. It was full of black-and-white pictures and a couple of old passports, but what stopped me cold was the money. In the book, Poke explains to Rose what he saw when he opened his father’s metal box: “I saw the bills as pictures. Of Clouds. Trees. Buildings with roofs that tilted up at the corners. Lakes with bridges over them, and the bridges looked like . . . I don’t know, lace or something. Everything seemed to float, I was looking at a world where everything seemed to float.”
And then I went on television projects in Japan and the Philippines, and I was the thing that seemed to float. After a shoot in Japan I was supposed to spend several weeks there but it was the coldest February in decades, so I called a travel agent and asked to be sent someplace that was warm and Asian and didn’t require a visa. That turned out to be Bangkok, and after less than a week there I took an apartment.
You seem so knowledgeable about the criminal element in Los Angeles. Can you talk about how you do your research? You appear to spend a good deal of time hanging out with gangsters, or is everything all just made up?
It’s not at all peculiar that you ask that, because even cops have contacted me with the same question. In one of the books, Poke breaks into an empty house in broad daylight by dressing as a delivery man and toting up to the front porch an empty refrigerator box on a dolly, making it look very, very heavy. Then he steps into the box through the little door he’s made and takes his own sweet time picking the lock, knowing that anyone who passes by will see a delivery truck, a dolly, and a big box labeled SUB ZERO.
My website is in the Afterword to all the books, and not long after that one came out I got an email from a police detective in the North San Fernando Valley asking who my source was for what he called the “refrigerator burglary.” I told him I made it up, and he was quite disappointed. And actually, I make it all up.
However, when I was young and stupid, I had an affinity for some substances that couldn’t be scored in Sunday school, and I found that I kind of enjoyed the low-level crooks who sold to me and the slightly higher-level crooks who sold to them. So I hung around in their proximity for a year or so. They were eating a lot of downers, so they did things pretty slowly. I mean, I could have made notes and no one would have noticed. The hit man called Bones in HERBIE’S GAME is based on one of those dealers. Also, I was in the music industry, which is all crooks, although of a different kind, so I got to know my share.
The subject matter of your thrillers is often quite dark. How can you delve into so much pain and suffering and not get depressed yourself? Or, perhaps you do?
Writing is the best therapy in the world. One of the reasons most crime writers are such nice people is that we get it all out on the page and even get to ask ourselves questions about where the hell did that come from?
I go through everything my characters do, although the bruises are internal and fade more quickly, and at the end of the process I feel this enormous release: I’ve let another of my private beasts out into the light and everyone survived. Writing is the best job in the world, although I should also note that it’s brutally hard and even soul-searing, and it’s no wonder so many writers drink and dope and beat their husbands the way they do. There, that should discourage some potential competition. Seriously, being able to write for a living is like winning the lottery twice a week. When you’re not in despair, I mean.
Is there a rhythm to how you write your two series? Do you sometimes find yourself wishing you were writing about Thailand when you are working on a Junior Bender novel, for example?
One of my secrets is that by the time I’ve finished a book I’m sick to death of it. It’s a good thing that my editor is overworked and can’t get to things quickly, because I’d cut my throat if I had to go straight into editing. Later, when I go back into it, I can usually see why I wrote it in the first place.
The best thing about writing a series is also the worst thing: the continuing characters. On the good side, they pre-exist each book, in a sense; you already know them inside out, and the issue is simply to present them, which is much, much easier than making them up. When you haven’t seen them in a while, you actually miss them. I swear that in each Poke Rafferty book, the first time I write that living room, with Rose and Miaow sitting on the couch and Rafferty on that uncomfortable leather hassock, something unlocks in my chest and I sigh the exact same way I do when I get home after a long absence.
But I do leave home for long periods of time; I live in Santa Monica and Bangkok and now I’m also thinking about getting a place in the Virgin Islands, which would give me three homes to rotate among. And that’s because of something fundamental in my own personal character—I get tired of places in much the same way I get tired of my continuing characters. I love them for a while, and then I need a change. So it works for me to dive into Junior’s world in Los Angeles until the story is done and then hop to Bangkok to spend time with Poke and Rose and Miaow. It’s like I have a long airplane flight between series, and that suits me fine.
And now I’m thinking very seriously of writing either a third series or some one-offs, mainly to take myself somewhere new. And why not? There’s no rule against it that I know.
Do you have any writing patterns or rituals that help you get into the mood to write your wonderful thrillers?
Thank you for the word “wonderful.” I write seven days a week, aiming for 1000-1500 words. They can be awful words, but I have to write them. Sometimes I come up short, sometimes it comes quickly and easily—a few weeks ago on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, I wrote 4,000 words in one elegantly easy day.
But writing to me is about anxiety. I always think the book I’m writing is doomed—this will be the one I have to toss out and then I’ll never be able to write another one. So I have to wait until my anxiety about not writing overpowers my anxiety about writing. Then drenched in anticipatory flop sweat, I can open the computer and press those magical 26 keys.
See? Writers are neurotic as hell.
Reviewers tend to consider your breakout novel to be THE QUEEN OF PATPONG. My favorite of your two current series is THE FAME THIEF. Do you have your own personal favorite among the 16 fine thrillers you have written?
I love THE FAME THIEF, too, so I’m glad to hear you say that. Some readers got all cranky because it had a ghost in it, but when I started to write, there she was, so what could I do? I made a rule for myself, that she could not be involved in either the crime or the solution, and I held her to that, and out of absolutely nowhere she gave me what I think is a wonderful last chapter.
Writers need to feel that they’re getting better, so I always like my most recent book best, once I get over being sick of it. I absolutely love the next Poke, FOR THE DEAD, in part because it’s largely Miaow’s book, and of all the characters in my books, Miaow is the one I most enjoy writing. I also like the latest Junior, HERBIE’S GAME, because it takes me into Junior’s past, which I hadn’t thought much about.
Can you give us just a peek at what may lie in store for Junior Bender? For Poke Rafferty and his family?
In the next Junior, KING MAYBE, assuming I can finish it, Junior is pressed into action by one of the most powerful men in Hollywood to steal one of the mogul’s own paintings from a house that’s equipped with top-of-the-line museum security. All I’ll say at this point is that the book will feature the longest action sequence I’ve ever written, maybe 40 or 50 pages, and it should be a lot of fun. If it goes the way it seems to be going (I never know where a book is going until it’s written), we’ll also learn a lot about Junior’s mysterious and not-entirely-honest girlfriend, Ronnie, whom I also love to write.
The next Poke is partly about what happens to a sensitive, self-loathing teenage girl when her carefully forged identity is stripped away and there doesn’t seem to be anywhere she belongs, which has, of course, been Miaow’s nightmare ever since Rose and Poke took her off the street. Right now, I like the book a whole lot.
Are there any prospects for either of your two series to hit the screen—in movies or television?
By the time this is in print, NBC should have announced that the Junior Bender books have been bought as a series for one of the funniest men alive, Eddie Izzard.
And an unpublished graphic novel I wrote about five years ago has suddenly sprung to life and is being aggressively shopped for a cable series, with some really interesting early reactions. More to come, I hope, later.
Timothy Hallinan is Edgar, Macavity, and Shamus-nominated author of 16 published thrillers and mysteries. He currently writes two series: the Poke Rafferty thrillers, which are set in Bangkok and feature an American adventure-travel writer and his cobbled together, inter-cultural family; and the Junior Bender mysteries, which follow the adventures of a Los Angeles burglar who is often pressed into service as a private eye for some of the most dangerous criminals in Southern California. The film rights to the Bender books have been bought by NBC for a television series. In the 1990s Hallinan wrote six novels about an overeducated private eye named Simeon Grist that have become cult favorites. He lives in Santa Monica and Bangkok.
To learn more about Timothy, please visit his website.