Today we travel to Thailand to examine the work of writer Timothy Hallinan, author of the Poke Rafferty series, set in Bangkok. Hallinan has divided his time between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia for almost thirty years. He is the author of six private-eye novels set in Los Angeles and four Rafferty thrillers: A Nail Through the Heart, The Fourth Watcher, Breathing Water, and, coming this summer, The Queen of Patpong.
“Hallinan’s prose will engage readers,” declared a critic for Kirkus Reviews of the third book in the series, Breathing Water. A Booklist reviewer noted of the same work, “The dialogue crackles, the sense of one of the world’s edgiest cities is sharp, and the plight of the poor, especially the children, is moving.” Of The Fourth Watcher, a Publishers Weekly contributor noted in a starred review, “Stellar. Smooth prose, appealing characters and a twisting, action-filled plot make this thriller a stand-out.”
Tim, it’s a real pleasure to have you on Scene of the Crime. I appreciate you taking the time to talk about the use of setting in your work.
First, could you describe your connection to Bangkok. How did you come to live there or become interested in it? And, if you do not live on site, do you make frequent trips there?
My series is set in Bangkok, which I first visited by accident. I was in Japan with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1981, working on a PBS series about the first tour of that country by a Western symphony orchestra, and I had decided to take two weeks and go up to the hot springs in Hokkaido, at the northern tip of Japan, and sit up to my nose in hot water, watch it snow (it was February), and read the classic Japanese novel, The Tale of Genji.
I made the mistake of talking about it, and a bunch of the string players thought that sounded like a great idea and ran out to Kinokuniya books in Tokyo to buy their copies of the book. I liked these guys, but I’d been with them for what felt like months, and I wanted to be alone. So I called my travel agent and asked her to book me somewhere else in Asia where I wouldn’t need a visa. At the time, that meant Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines. I’d done an absolutely terrible movie in the Philippines and didn’t want to go back, and Taiwan didn’t interest me, so I flew to Bangkok and waddled off the plane in a down jacket and a scarf to find a temperature of 94 degrees and the immigration officers falling off their chairs laughing at me.
That was the first time I ever saw immigration guys laugh, anywhere in the world. I thought it was a good sign, and it turned out to be.
What things about Bangkok make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Those are really at least two different questions. The most striking thing about Bangkok is that it’s the most cheerful big city in the world. It’s bigger physically than New York and more cheerful than Smallville. The Thai people are the world’s most welcoming, even now when foreigners are no longer the novelty they were in 1981, when waiters would sit down at my table to try out their English. (They also couldn’t believe that I’d willingly eat alone, since Thai people never do anything alone if they can help it. They wanted to keep me company,)
Beyond the good cheer, Bangkok is a city of enormous contrast. It’s heartbreakingly poor and breathtakingly rich. It’s carnal, with more red-light districts than anywhere I can think of, and deeply spiritual, with giant temples and small street shrines everywhere. (Many taxis have an abstract of Buddha-spirit handpainted on the ceiling above the driver.) You’ll walk down some deafening street and turn into a small street (or “soi”) and it’ll be lined with open-air shops where men are beating tiny pieces of gold into gold leaf for the faithful, who rub it onto the statues of the Buddha. All the Buddhas in the big temples are gilded, even the backs, which no one usually sees; the Thais say that doing good deeds secretly is “Gilding the Buddha’s back.”
Finally, Bangkok is, as Maugham said of Monaco, a sunny place for shady people. It’s one of those places that’s sort of morally downhill from everywhere, and the loosest people roll down into it. It has an amazing expat population of rogues, former spies, sex addicts, seekers of Nirvana, the meditator with the sandals he bought in Nepal and the junkie with the pound of black heroin he bought in Goa. All rubbing shoulders in this very steamy place.
Bangkok was always meant to be a character. I like to think that the stories I tell in the books (since each book is a braid of three or four stories) couldn’t happen anywhere else – or, if they did, they’d happen differently. I continually frame the action in terms of Bangkok; I know where we are on every page, and I’m always giving the reader glimpses of the location – not just visually, but the smells, the noises, the crowds, whatever supports the scene.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
This is an interesting question, because I think setting is useless unless it reflects the characters or is reflected in them. We see it through their eyes, see their impatience or fear or appreciation or whatever it is the city is inspiring in them at that time. I have no use for setting that’s painted canvas, like flats on a theater stage. I want the reader to feel that I know what’s around the corner, what’s through that window, what’s on the next block – and to feel like I might be about to take them there. Bangkok is just absolutely central to these books. Poke Rafferty, an American travel writer, is the male protagonist, and his Thai wife Rose, and their adopted street-child daughter, Miaow, are the female protagonists, but Bangkok is always hovering just behind them. And also, of course, it’s shaped each of them.
How does Poke interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
When Poke comes to Bangkok, prior to the first book in the series, A Nail Through the Heart, he’s there to write a book, one of a series of smartass traveler books called Looking for Trouble. He’s already written Looking for Trouble in the Philippines and Looking for Trouble in Indonesia, and he’s come to do the same here – get in, find out what he can, turn out a book, and move on. But Bangkok blindsides him, as it did me, and he finds himself in love with the city. Then he falls in love with Rose, a former dancer (that’s a euphemism) in the infamous Patpong district, and he meets this seven- or eight-year-old street child, Miaow, and adopts her – at first informally and then formally. In A Nail Through the Heart he and Rose and Miaow are together, but Rose hasn’t yet accepted his proposal of marriage. And it doesn’t look like she’s going to.
And Rafferty realizes that he’s been looking at these other societies as though they were department store display windows separated from him by an inch of glass, and that – if he wants to be happy, if he wants to assemble this family that means so much to him (and if he’s going to stay alive long enough to do it) he needs to get on the other side of that pane of glass.
So he’s consciously trying to find his way in, and he continues to do so through the books. In the one that’s coming out this August, The Queen of Patpong, he finds himself the father of a pre-teen daughter, since Miaow is now twelve, and anyone who’s ever been around preteen girls knows that it’s essential to understand the culture that surrounds them, if only to know what you should be worried about.
Has there been any local reaction to your works? What do Thai reviewers think of the books, for example.
The books are sold in Thailand, but only in English. People who read them there, all expats, seem to like them quite a bit and say that the city is presented accurately. The books have been well reviewed in Bangkok and in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where I also live.
They’ve been translated into Spanish and Italian, but those editions are just now coming out and I have absolutely no idea how they’ll be received.
Of the novels you have written set in Bangkok, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
I think most writers like the book they just wrote, and I have to say that The Queen of Patpong is currently my favorite. But I like all of them, more or less. I know where I succeeded and where I failed in each of them. Every one of them almost killed me in one way or another, but I got through it somehow. In The Queen of Patpong, for the first time ever, I wrote a very long section in which almost all the characters are women, and it scared me senseless. But now that I’ve been through editing and copyediting and so forth, I have enough distance from it to think that it works. And everybody who’s read it loves it, and these people are not pushovers, so maybe I came out of it with something worth doing.
Excerpts – gee. These are all from The Queen of Patpong, since that’s the one that’s freshest in my mind.
“Through the sliding glass door, the Bangkok skyline glittered with the fraudulent optimism of all big cities.”
“In the street below, the short, crowded road called Patpong One, the night market has sprung into noisy life. Beneath the smoky half-glow of the night sky, two straggling lines of over-illuminated stalls offer curios, jewelry, eelskin and leather goods, preserved tarantulas and scorpions, and an impressive variety of forgeries: watches, sunglasses, fountain pens, computer software, games, compact disks, mislabeled designer clothes, acrylic amber, and plastic ivory that’s been buried in water-buffalo manure for that convincing patina of age. In a few booths, less brightly illuminated, the discerning shopper can sort through an assortment of tasers, flick-knives, brass knuckles, switchblades, and other instruments of intimate aggression.”
And on and on.
My favorite novelists are Anthonys – Anthony Trollope, who was a contemporary of Dickens, and Anthony Powell, whose twelve-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time is probably my favorite book of the 20th century. I love Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, William Gaddis, Dawn Powell, Richard Russo, William Boyd, David Mitchell. And all the good thriller and mystery writers: Chandler (who influenced everyone), Robert Wilson, Edward Wright (who should be outselling all of us) Bill James, Daniel Woodrell, Brett Battles, Ken Bruen, Sue Grafton, Laura Joh Rowland, and a hundred more. I read pretty much everything.
My favorite remark about the way I use the location was made by Ken Bruen after he read a preview copy of The Queen of Patpong. He said, “John Burdett writes about Bangkok. Timothy Hallinan is Bangkok.”
Thanks once more, Tim, for a deeply felt interview. Good luck with the new book.
Visit Tim Hallinan at his homepage.