Note: Readers may have noted that from time to time I have linked to various useful articles on Timothy Hallinan's blog and that Hallinan himself has dropped the occasional comment on ISLF. Therefore, prior to embarking on this review I thought I ought to mention that I obtained the following title entirely from my own resources. No publisher copies or any other freebies were involved.
The thriller gets a bad rap in the larger literary world. Scattered at every supermarket checkout lane, filled with bad guys and bullets, and typically read at a pace faster than a runaway Ferrari, such pulpy offerings are often viewed as the consummate guilty pleasure, something with which to fritter away an afternoon at the beach and toss when you're through. Only horror ranks lower in popular genre pantheon, but it has Stoker and Shelley to prop up its pedigree. It's a shame, because a number of authors have used the humble thriller not only to excite audiences but also to address big themes and do so with fine prose. Consider, for example, Timothy Hallinan's Breathing Water.
Poke Rafferty doesn't do danger for his day job. Sure, he lives in Bangkok, not exactly the safest city in the world. But he writes tour books and the occasional topical tome. Which is how he came to be sitting in this poker game with his police friend Arthit, a conman named Tip and a rigged hand of cards. It's all supposed to be fodder for his latest book: Bilk a few unsuspecting businessmen, return their cash when it's over and net an interesting premise. Only no one expected thuggish billionaire Khun Pan to join the game. Outraged over the deception, Pan challenges Poke to a private game with higher stakes. If Poke loses, he'll get run out of the county; if Pan does, he'll let him pen his biography, an honor denied to scores of other writers. Guess who ends up with the winning hand and a killer book deal? Not long after that, though, the phone calls start, unidentified people threatening Poke's family if he finishes the project -- and if he doesn't. Now Poke has to discover what secret elevated a one-time crook like Pan into the pantheon Thailand's elite.
Breathing Water contains all of the requite genre nods, such as imminent danger at every turn and a plot twistier than a Kansas tornado. But it plumbs depths by naturally melding Poke's peril with commentary on Thai politics and ethnic tensions. Also, Hallinan can turn a phrase until it spins like a top, employing unexpected similes and tongue-in-cheek humor. Awakened at an ungodly hour, Poke "wraps himself in his robe as though it were a grievance." One of Pan's associates snaps at the writer "in a voice like a pair of tin snips." And when Poke expresses incredulity at a chortling gang of thugs ("Did somebody teach all you guys to chuckle?"), the ringleader replies, "The chuckle is a perfectly acceptable form of laughter." Hard-edged and humorous, fierce and finely written, Water is refreshingly good.
(Picture: CC 2010 by aramolara)