As best selling novelist Timothy Hallinan recently wrote in his blog, never begin a blog topic with “I”. More about Tim to follow – read on. Okay – I had a visitor last night. About 9:00 PM I decided to do a bit of food shopping. Off I went to the nearby Publix – they stay open until 9:30 PM most weekday nights, with bonus open time expanded to 10:00 PM on the weekend. When I came back, I noticed a small snake coiled up in my entrance way. Yeah – a snake!
It wasn’t much of a snake. Maybe 3 to 3 1/4 inches in length and not too well filled out. He could safely hide in an un-mowed lawn. He was sitting on the tiles, possibly not too pleased about the chilled air circulating through the apartment. The thermostat called for a chilly sixty-eight degrees. I found my trusted air canister thing-y; the one you use to blow the dust, small crumbs, hairs, and what-not out of the crevices of a computer keyboard. A few blasts of this arctic-like air and he was out the door and back in no man’s land otherwise known as the breezeway. Good night and good riddance to you sir I called out as I closed the door. After all, he was the epitome of the worst kind of unexpected events – the dreaded pop-in.
Speaking of snakes, over the last 8 or 9 weeks I have been absorbing every word written by Timothy Hallinan in his Poke Rafferty series of books. I think I discovered these books by searching on Amazon.com for mystery or thrillers set in exotic locations in their book section. The Poke Rafferty series (there have been four books published so far) are all set mainly in Bangkok, Thailand. Now I’ve been to Thailand four times and have a feel for the city of Bangkok as well as the resort island of Phuket. Not once while I was in country did I have any kind of a run-in, or pop-in, with a snake.
But in Hallinan’s 3rd book in the series, Breathing Water, a de-fanged cobra is found in Poke Rafferty’s 8-year old daughter’s bed. Now the Rafferty apartment is on the 4th or 5th floor of a Bangkok apartment building, so it was a safe bet that while said snake may have indeed arrived by means of the building’s elevator, we can be sure it wasn’t under its own power. The snake had been placed there, by unknown parties, as an indisputable warning to Poke to cease and desist.
So who is Philip “Poke” Rafferty anyway? In the series, his background is a tad muddled or mysterious, but as the series opens we find him in Bangkok. He’s already authored two rough-travel books, the short name of both is Looking for Trouble. These are the kind of books that are considered off-beat, and the kind that would appeal to those who travel with back-backs instead of luggage, those who stay in hostels rather than internationally known hotel chains, and those who dine daily on food made and sold on the street.
Poke’s Dad was an American and his Mom a Filipino woman. So Poke has a look about him that more than hints at Asian-ness, and simultaneously tells the Bangkok locals that Poke is a farang or foreigner. But Bangkok had gotten a hold of him, and a few years have gone by. His third book is still being worked on. Poke has acquired a significant other, and there’s a former street urchin (the previously mentioned 8 year old girl) that Poke wants to adopt. In short, they are a family.
Breathing Water opens with a high stakes poker game. We don’t know it initially, but the game is a kind of sting operation. Poke’s friend Arhit, is one of the few Bangkok cops who are honest, is also playing in the game. Also at the table is Khun Pan who was once a green kid in Bangkok who came from an upcountry village where electricity and plumbing were on everyone’s wish list. But now Pan is a self-made and ostentatiously showy billionaire. In short – once a mob goon now a mob boss. He worked his way up by making a lot of smart deals, and a lot of forceful deals, that people could not just say no to. He made friends, or established connections with some very big and powerful men in Bangkok.
Now if you’ve read the papers over the last three or four years, you know that the real-life world of Thailand politics has been quite unstable. Pan has been noticed by the Bangkok establishment, and the Bangkok underworld, and the hoi-polloi, as more than just an up-and-coming possible player in the political arena.
There’s a group that wants to use him as puppet Prime Minister. And this group could be considered criminal either on the surface or just below the surface. But Pan is adored and idolized by the poor because he gives to charities, puts up hospitals and schools, and the collective working man consider him a peer, one of their own. The various power groups, movers and shakers, and the political cognoscenti behind the scenes, correctly reason that this very substantial group of the country’s population could deliver such a large block of votes, that any election would be a walk-over, a mere formality.
But there’s another group with a contrary view, and that would be Bangkok’s wealthy and conservative establishment. They’ve been in power for so long. They are the rich and the connected. They don’t want a sea-change at the top of political establishment – they want things to stay just the way they are. The poor stay poor and the rich get richer. To them, Pan would be an anathema and they would not want Pan in office at any level under any circumstances.
Simultaneously two ideas are floated – One that Poke Rafferty could write a biography of Khun Pan that would help sweep him into power. The other idea was that Rafferty was a very smart guy, and that he could write a biography of Pan that would ruin his political chances. Meaning that Pan had some deep dark secrets that could never be brought out in the light of day and that Rafferty would be able to uncover them and they’d get published. which would be the end of Pan’s career as a politician.
So at the outset Rafferty is given a handsome advance, and told that he must write the book, and at the same time he is absolutely threatened that not only would he lose his life if he wrote the book, but before that they’d take care of his wife Rose, and the little girl Miaow as well in a way that no man would want for his family.
Wow, what a dilemma – one group insisting that he write the book, along with the severe threats of death if he didn’t, and the other side demanding, and threatening everything he loved and cherished, if he did write the book.
There’s your set up. You’ve got exotic Bangkok as your setting with a cast of gangsters, confidential informants, information peddlers or middle men that work both sides, news reporters, an army of street kids, cops both crooked and honest, and a bevy of bar girls who serve drinks, dance, and prostitute themselves nightly in the seedy Patpong bars and clubs that are magnets for men from all over the world.
Poke himself is a one of a kind. He’s tough, he’s fearless, and his bravado often works against him as he’s the type of guy who speaks first, usually a wisecrack, then thinks second. Despite his singularity in the Bangkok setting, you could easily compare him to two of author Nelson DeMille‘s best loved protagonists – former NYC Police Detective John Corey who has appeared in five DeMille novels – the most recent of which was The Lion published in hardcover in June of 2010. The other DeMille character that Poke will remind you of, is from the DeMille novels Gold Coast and The Gate House. That would be lawyer John Sutter.
I’ve got two more character references – both of which were performed by actor Bruce Willis. His Die-Hard character noted for his wisecracking – New York cop John McClane is the first. The other was from Willis’s stint on a TV Series called Moonlighting. In this popular series which ran in the early 80’s, Willis played David Addison, who ran a private detective agency opposite Cybill Shepherd who owned the agency. The Addison character could be described as a very charming loudmouth.
Now Poke Rafferty is a bit of all of those characters only without the muscle. But he’s quite clever and he’s aces up when it comes to figuring things out. He’s not much on the physical side and more often than not he has to take a beating of sorts. But he proves over and over that brains are better than brawn.
As for Timothy Hallinan’s writing: His Rafferty thrillers are not only best sellers but he is getting the best reviews of his life. Me? I’m a big, BIG fan of the Poke Rafferty novels and am currently engrossed in the most recent Rafferty novel, and the 4th one that I’ve read, The Queen of Patpong. And I’m loving it.
For an excellent read – head over to your public library, or to your local book store, and see if you can pick up the Poke Rafferty novels. You’ll be glad you did. The novels titles (listed in the order of publication) are:
A Nail Through the Heart
The Fourth Watcher
and The Queen of Patpong
If you can’t locate any of these books, don’t get angry. Instead, please use the Thai expression Mai Pen Rai – which means, No worries or No problem. You can always order the books on line or download the e-book versions.