Saturday, June 20, 2009

Thai anxiety: Timothy Hallinan's Breathing Water

I didn't set out to do so, but I've read a number of crime novels recently that have crime writers as protagonists. Naturally this has had me looking for self-reference, and I found it, whether the authors, Chris Ewan and L.C. Tyler, intended the self-reference or not.

Timothy Hallinan's Poke Rafferty is a different kind of author – a travel writer based in Bangkok – and Breathing Water has him serving rather more demanding editors: a shady, ultra-rich Thai patron of the tarts who grants Rafferty the right to write his life story as the result of a lost poker game, on the one hand, and on the other, competing groups of shady, ultra-rich Thais who have their own ideas of the tack the book should take and who threaten Rafferty and his wife and child if the book does not turn out right – or if he writes it at all.

That's more pressure than authors usually get, and it gives Rafferty occasion for reflections that may strike a chord with writers whether or not they echo Hallinan's own experience:

"[Rafferty] figures he'll grab a table big enough to write on, clear a space, and go back to work on his list. Maybe start playing with scenarios. He's long known that he thinks more clearly when he writes, that the act of waiting for his hand to finish forming the words slows his thought processes in a way that opens them up, allows him to see three or four possible alternative paths rather than just the most obvious one."
Breathing Water is the third Rafferty novel. Two-thirds of the way in, it's a thriller that's hard to put down. Hallinan knows how to create suspense without resorting to obvious cliffhangers, and he knows how to maintain dual story strands and keep a reader wondering how each will turn out as well as how the two will come together. It says here that he also creates a convincing picture of Thai life among the obscenely rich and the desperately poor and that he does a neat job of injecting narrative movement into a purely expository scene – in this case, a dialogue on some realities of Thai politics.

I'll probably have more to say soon, perhaps about Hallinan's white-knight hero and brief, grim, humorous chapter titles. For background on Poke Rafferty and his creator, read the Detectives Beyond Borders interview with Timothy Hallinan here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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Blogger Dana King said...

I finished reading BREATHING WATER on Friday. It might be the best book I've read this year, Hallinan has a gift for writing taut thrillers that are still character driven, not the Colorform characters so often used so their skills will serve some plot point.

June 21, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I was up hellishly late this morning even by my standards reading the book. I agree with your assessment. It's a hell of a book.

June 21, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

I have read and enjoyed your post on self-reference, and written my pieces on self-reference myself (plus reached post no 200).

Furthermore, I have found a review for you of another crime writer´s use of self-reference:
Anne Holt, What Never Happens

June 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

To hundrede gange tillykke. I shall probe these new sources on self-reference after work tonight. Thanks.

June 22, 2009  
Anonymous Timothy Hallinan said...

Thanks so much, Peter -- I really appreciate the kind words.

And the bit you quote certainly is my own experience. I think completely differently when I'm writing. And without doing it consciously, I've made Poke take a writerly approach in all three books so far. In each one of them there's a point at which he sits down and constructs a narrative, in a sense, of where he is and how he might work his way out of it. A "scenario," as it says in the bit you quoted. He sort of plots his way out of trouble.

BOOKLIST reviewed the book today, and it's a rave. This is the first print review, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it's an augur, not a unique event.

And thanks, Dana -- you couldn't have said anything nicer, considering how many books you read.

June 22, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Congratulations on that rave. May it be the first of many.

One of the reasons that I've been fascinated with self-reference in recent posts is that easy for such references to seem arch. That's not the case here, and it's why I liked the reference. The passage is self-referential, but it fits seamlessly into the narrative at the same time.

"He sort of plots his way out of trouble."

And, for those who have not read about Poke, his travel guides are called Looking for Trouble in ...

June 22, 2009  

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