The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan

You’ve got time on your hands. Your wife and daughter have gone upcountry and now seems to be the perfect time to paint the apartment. Though painting is not your favorite activity, a trip to the paint store gets you out for a while, meaning some time is spent somewhat pleasurably.

After you’ve made your selections which are Apricot Cream, which Rose liked for the living room, and Urban Decay, a paint color that is best described as having the look of a rotted eggplant, which Miaow picked out for her bedroom, and you’ve paid for the paint – you find yourself outside of the store but still in front of it, you suddenly realize that there’s a bit of a commotion.

People are running by you in one direction, and real fast. You turn to look in the direction that the people are running towards. At once, someone runs into you from behind and the collision takes both of you down to greet the sidewalk – up close and personally.

As you and the guy atop you struggle to right yourselves, there some loud noises. The guy has just been shot, and then again, and again. You get the guy up to a place where he’s half-sitting, half lying across your lap. He’s going fast – that is, he’s dying in your arms. The man raises his head and whispers with his dying breaths: HelenEckersleyCheyenne … before slumping over.

So begins Timothy Hallinan’s new novel The Fear Artist. About to be published by Soho Press, this novel will be on your book seller’s shelves in just a few days. This is the latest in Tim’s great series of Poke Rafferty thrillers. They’re all set in exotic Bangkok, Thailand. Thailand is called ‘the land of smiles’, and even though the people do smile as often as possible, and want to live their lives filled with sanuk (fun), that doesn’t mean that aren’t some mean streets in town. Danger can be found around any corner. Or as we’ve just discovered – sometime the danger finds you.

After getting out from under the man who has just expired in his arms – Poke Rafferty, an American writer of travel books, who now calls Bangkok his home, discovers that there’s a camera crew already on the scene. Just seconds have passed. How are they here already?

Police are also present – and when Poke says this man has been shot – the police say no one was shot. Poke knows better. Despite the street being covered in Apricot Cream mixed with the Urban Decay, Poke has enough blood stains on him to know he didn’t image the sounds of the gunfire. Nor did imagine this man’s body shuddering from the impact of the bullets.

So after an alarming face off/stare down/confrontation from the cops on the scene, Poke is allowed to head home. But the affair is far from over. Poke is going to be facing an interrogation by some Thai intelligence officers otherwise known spooks. Only he doesn’t know it yet.

Yes, the cans of paint that he dropped burst open, and the paint mixed with the man’s blood. But more than just paint has spilled. A can of worms better known as secrets has also been opened. Secrets that stretch back more than 40 years. Secrets that have crossed both international borders as well as passing through the corridors of time.

Do you recall the Phoenix Program? It is one of America’s hidden intelligence efforts during the Vietnam War that America cannot be proud of, nor do they want it examined in the bright lights of current affairs in South East Asia. The hostilities ended in Vietnam long ago. The battles for the hearts and minds were lost years ago.

But despite the passage of time – some of what happened 40 years ago is still in festering, and exists like an ugly, wriggling, living thing under a rock, afraid of the exposure to the sunlight, afraid of questions, unwilling to provide answers, and most of all – something that wants to remain wrapped in secrecy, at all costs.

Hallinan’s book is a real thrill ride. You’ll meet former spooks from Russia, from the USA, even from other European countries. You’ll find that while the names of the enemies and the faces of the enemies have changed, the arts of spy-craft haven’t changed at all.

Secrets are sold in Bangkok bars, pubs, coffee houses and sidewalks everyday. Alliances are created in the expat community based on the exchange of hard currency.

You have to make a deal and then wonder if you’ve bought a pack of lies or the truth. Poke Rafferty is no innocent babe in the woods. He’s far from a fish out of water struggling to gain a foothold in a foreign land. Though Poke is a farang (foreigner) to the Thais, he has some connections in the Bangkok Police Department as well as expat cronies who sometimes have his back.

He’s been around the block more than few times.

Hallinan can provide the colors, the noises, even the tastes of Thai cooking, the chill of a Thai beer, or the sour aroma of sweat induced by fear, to be found across Bangkok for his readers. He’s not shy about presenting us with bad guys that would toss you off a roof-top, or cut the throats of your loved ones, without any hesitation at all.

I think that this novel, The Fear Artist is the best Poke Rafferty novel to date. The ghosts from the Phoenix Program aren’t just hinted at – Poke has to go on the run, or said another way – he has to go to ground, in short he’s running for his life, not from ghosts but from a predator from the past, as he struggles to assemble the pieces of the puzzle.

For we readers, whether you’ve been to Bangkok or not – this novel is a trip you won’t forget. Sharply drawn characters, excitement, tension and desperate times are served up just the way you like them.

The Fear Artist is published by Soho Press – July 17th, 2012 (hardcover edition – 342 pages)