The Fear Artist, by Timothy Hallinan
Bangkok, Thailand – a city in which it can honestly be said that you can’t even go out and buy paint without getting into trouble.
Of course, trouble and Poke Rafferty tend to go hand in hand, much to his constant chagrin. Ever since he settled in Bangkok — truly the best worst city in the world — fell in love with Rose, and adopted Miaow, it seems like massive and dangerous problems have him on speed dial.
But nothing can prepare him for having a condemned man collapse on top of him during a come-from-nowhere riot on the street, and get shot for his troubles. With his dying breath he whispers three words to Poke, slips him a laundry ticket, and then slips away. And this leaves our hero with a riddle, as well as several very unfriendly Thai policemen who first insist there was no shooting, but then want Poke to tell them everything he knows about the dead man.
That’s not the worst of it, though. Before long, it becomes clear that Poke is being targeted by someone who’s convinced he knows more than he does. And this genuinely menacing person is high up enough to make him a wanted man — putting his face in and the hands of every Bangkok cop, and across every television set in Thailand, as the prime suspect in the man’s killing.
It’s all Poke can do to grab some essentials, dash underground, and stay there, keeping in constant motion to avoid what will surely be a fatal arrest. Thankfully, Rose and Miaow are off visiting her family up North, but it may only be a matter of time before the dragnet gets to them, too.
Once again, Poke will have to rely on his extensive knowledge of the city that keeps trying to kill or save him, and her other adopted, lost children. Bangkok’s community of former spooks might give him aid and information, but only so long as his money holds out. And while his many friends and neighbors are always happy to help, they have some problems of their own, and not all of them may be what they seem…
However, while Poke’s the master of putting one enemy against another, and finding a third path between two oncoming hazards, this one’s going to be truly tough — especially while living on the run. For in order to discover what’s happened to him, Poke will have to delve into the perilous twilight world of American intelligence in Southeast Asia, past and present. And this journey will lead him back to shadowy dealings in another age, and their current connection to the global War on Terror.
Only one man straddles the two eras, and he’s the one holding the gun up to Poke’s head. But who is this virtuoso of terror? Is he carrying out American policy, or acting on his own agenda? What does he really want, here?
And can Poke Rafferty find out without becoming yet another victim of the Fear Artist?
As always, Hallinan’s writing is delicately balanced between humor, horror, and hope, as genuinely decent people are thrown to the lions, only to surprise their antagonists — and occasionally even themselves — by surviving. But while the way that Poke gets himself out of this one is a real stunner, the true applause should be withheld for the titular villain, himself: a three-dimensional, tragic monster who, while perhaps irredeemable, is not entirely bereft of humanity, or undeserving of our sympathy.
With The Fear Artist, Timothy Hallinan delivers yet another a white-knuckle thriller that takes us into a city we clearly do not know, and shows us that while it’s worse than we were told, it’s also better than we could have ever hoped. You could start reading from here, but it would be better to begin with “A Nail Through the Heart,” and work your way forwards through a truly excellent series of exotic thrillers that offer much more than a risk-filled rundown through a suddenly-unhealthy foreign locale.
The Fear Artist drops on July 17th, 2012.
–Jim, Lansing location