Monday, November 16, 2015

The Hot Countries

Never let it be said Timothy Hallinan leaves well enough alone, which is a good thing. He’s one of the few who can make it better. Writing a successful series about an American expatriate living in Thailand? Start up an equally successful series about an LA burglar who serves as PI to the underworld. Still not enough? How about creating a trilogy within the world of the Thailand series? Done.

The Hot Countries is the final installment of the three-book sequence begun by The Fear Artist and continuing through For the Dead. Each book places progressively more importance on Miaow, the Thai orphan adopted by Poke Rafferty and his wife, Rose. Miaow is entering adolescence and all the problems that can create for parent-child relationships, but it also now more than just a potential plot diversion or complication. She serves a vital purpose in helping Rafferty understand a cadre of homeless children, chief among them Treasure, a half-Thai, half-Caucasian child brutally raised by a former Operation Phoenix spook.

Much of The Hot Countries takes place in or because of Rafferty’s associations at the Expat Bar, where farang of various nationalities get together to drink and commiserate. A newcomer has started to make appearances, and has asked about Rafferty, albeit obliquely. Time will show what this stranger is after are things not easily relinquished.

At the risk of starting a genre argument, Hallinan has mastered the literary thriller. His plots are tight and the stories are perfectly paced. That’s enough for most writers, but Hallinan—again, not content to leave well enough alone—adds context to the characters and situation few would dare.

At the outset, Rafferty would be hard pressed to call those at the Expat Bar his friends, with one exception. By the end he’s come to realize they’re more like a family, though none of them would be so maudlin as to say so. The onset of dementia is also a key element of the story, as well as the repair of Rafferty’s friendship with Arthit, a clean cop who can call on a small handful of those he trusts to work the law to their advantage, even if they have to stretch it a little. The relationship between Rafferty and Arhtit’s new wife is also stressed, and it was tenuous to start wife.

None of these are afterthoughts, applied after the first draft to add depth. Everything that happens in the book happens for a reason. To change how quickly Rafferty and Anna come to better understand each other would create a butterfly effect that could change the entire outcome of the book. And it would still make sense.

The Hot Countries is Hallinan’s seventh Rafferty book. The series shows no signs of wear or staleness. Each book explores the series’ universe in a little more detail, drawing from bits of predecessors while expanding horizons. Rare is the book that so affects me that I need to take time for reflection on what I just read when I finish it. Still more unusual is the book that had that affect and seems better when I sit done to write the review a couple of weeks later.

This is one of those books. The rarest of the rare.

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