Thursday, December 11, 2014

For the Dead

Timothy Hallinan’s literary gifts are many, but the one that might serve him best in his series novels is an ability to use the same characters and settings and still create something unlike any of the stories that came before. The sixth Poke Rafferty book, For the Dead, is a prime example.

For the Dead is, at its core, a thriller wrapped around a story of evolving family dynamics. Poke’s wife, Rose, is pregnant. Their “adopted” daughter, Miaow, is moving into adolescence and all that entails, with the added burden of feeling a need to keep her origins as a street child hidden from her schoolmates and teachers. When Miaow’s maybe boyfriend, Andrew (the son of a Vietnamese diplomat) loses his cell phone, Miaow leverages her street skills to find him what they hope is a suitable replacement, unwittingly picking up a phone used in an ongoing murder for hire plot.

The early part of the book is actually four stories. Four-and-a-half, really, as the murder plot also brings into focus the estrangement between Poke and his policeman friend, Arthit, still my favorite series sidekick. Each of the seemingly independent stories will fold into a larger whole, but it takes a little while. Fortunately, Hallinan makes each story interesting enough on its own to make it easy to keep reading. The process reminded me a little of William Goldman’s classic Marathon Man, where the reader has no idea the stories of Babe and Scylla are related until Scylla falls, bleeding, into Babe’s apartment. Hallinan’s reveal is not as abrupt, as the book’s momentum up as hints of where things are going start to emerge. It’s virtuoso stuff.

What struck me as the book’s greatest accomplishment of craft lies in how Hallinan, whose refusal to outline or plot anything in advance is well documented, is able to reach back into previous stories to pluck bits that make this story come together plausibly, when many writers—even those who outline—will allow the seams to show where they shoved the deus into their machinae. It’s like watching an artist take whatever he has lying around the studio to make a good piece great with bits no one else would have thought had anything to contribute to the project at hand.

At a more micro level, no one matches Hallinan’s ability to find ways to describe everyday things and thoughts. Andrew’s father has a tree up his ass. Poke finds Rose in “a sleep so deep [he] believes he could change the sheets and not wake her.” A man “who has no obvious shortage of self-regard.” Clever, never cute, descriptions that would slip into clichés in less expert hands.

As always, the characters rule. Regular readers already are well acquainted with Poke and Rose and Miaow and Arthit. For the Dead mixes in a few from previous books (Boo, Treasure, Anna); adds Andrew’s father, a diplomat who is more than meets the eye; and Thanom, Arthit’s boss, a/k/a “The Dancer” for his ability to navigate the political rapids of the Bangkok police force until he stumbles onto proof he’s been playing in The Show with AAA skills.

The characters’ full development isn’t just a box that Hallinan feels the need to check. All that work serves the larger purpose of all the Rafferty books, which is to display the redemptive power of love. Rafferty loves Miaow “with a love that seems to flow through him rather than from him, because, he thinks, he couldn’t possibly hold so much. He’d have run dry years ago.” The same could describe his feelings for Rose, who cannot likely love her impending baby any more than she has come to love Miaow. Even Andrew’s father, officious prick that he is, is driven to extraordinary action in aiding Rafferty because of his love for the boy. For the Dead, like all its predecessors, is about the lengths people will extend themselves for those they truly love, and the strength to be drawn from that undiminished reservoir. It’s not always pretty—Poke is not above retribution—but whatever action may be taken is sanctified by the pureness of the love that drove it.

All that and a great thriller plot. Hallinan holds a unique place in his niche, and there aren’t a lot of challengers.

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