Friday, July 25, 2008

The Fourth Watcher - Timothy Hallinan

Poke Rafferty is a writer living in Bangkok, Thailand, with his fiance, Rose, and his adopted daughter, Miaow. Poke writes travels books with a unique twist - travel books that focus on the criminal aspects of locations. But he's ready to give up the danger associated with these books to have a life with his two special women.

Enter trouble! And not just trouble, but trouble in spades. Chu, a Chinese gangster is after Poke's father, Frank. He figures to reach Frank through Poke, even though Poke hasn't seen his father since he was 16. At the same time, Rose and her business partner, Peachy, innocently wind up caught in a counterfeiting ring. Throw in some crooked cops and an American Secret Service Agent, and you may think you have the makings of chaos. But quite the contrary. You have the makings of an incredible, suspenseful crime fiction novel.

There have been some blog discussions about "staycations" lately; vacations that you take at home (because gas is so expensive) through your travels in book. And I'm so incredibly excited to share with you my staycation to Bangkok, Thailand, courtesy of Timothy Hallinan. I have been immersed in the geography, the people, the politics. While I don't have a box full of slides to show you, it has been an amazing trip, let me share it with you.

How could I help but experience Bangkok through all of my senses with setting like this:

His decision arrives in the form of a typical Thai raindrop, perhaps half a pint of warm water, that smacks the top of his forehead much as a Zen master might clobber a meditating student whose attention has wandered. Before he can blink, thunder rumbles and the sky flickers: lights on, off, then on again, and suddenly it's much darker than before. A giant burps high overhead, a noise like someone rolling cannonballs in a huge pan.

This description sets the stage for the monsoon of trouble that is about to rain down on Poke and those around him. The foreshadowing is brilliant, and the rain continues to set the tone of the book throughout the course of events.

The setting is not the only place Hallinan works magic with the English language. Poke has a police officer friend, Arthit, whose wife, Noi, has multiple sclerosis; Hallinan helps the reader to experience the agony this woman endures day in and day out:

...Noi, is awakened, as she is so often these days, but the pain of her nerves burning away as multiple sclerosis licks at the sheathing tissue that covers them. She has come to think of the disease as a fire in her body, sometimes banked and sometimes burning out of control, whipped up by something she does not understand. When the disease is raging, especially late at night, it seems there is a third person in the room with her and Arthit, someone who knows how to fan the flames just by staring at her. She feels his emotionless, clinical gaze through the darkness...and on those nights she chews on the corner of her pillowcase to keep from moaning.

The imagery in this book is absolutely mesmerizing. I especially liked Poke's comment to Rose when he explains to her, "Women are flowers, men are root vegetables. You wouldn't make a bouquet of turnips." This line came in the chapter entitled "Women Are The Only People Who Look Good Naked." I don't see chapter titles in crime fiction very often these days, and that brought an added uniqueness to The Fourth Watcher. Half the fun was getting to the next chapter to see what it was titled!

Rafferty says that "'English is polyglot tongue...A linguistic hybrid enriched by grafts from many branches of the world's verbal tree.'" Hallinan was plucking from that tree constantly in this book. I have to admire any writer who can use "polyglot" and "stumblebum" in one book!

Hallinan's talent for imagery swept this reader away to a foreign land, but his knack for character development held my hand and helped me walk right into the lives of these people.

How can you NOT picture Elson, the Secret Service Agent, with description like this: "'Jesus...this guy safety-pins his socks together...What do you think, he's afraid they'll have a fight and separate or something?'" Or this: "Elson straightens his glasses, which already look like they were positioned by someone using a carpenter's level."

And Rafferty's best STATED description may very well come from his enemy: "'You have many characteristics I admire. You're devious, ingenious, energetic. You have a certain flair, which as far as I can see you're wasting completely.'"

When I taught high school English, I hammered home the multitude of ways an author could develop a character. One of the hardest elements for students to grasp was how a character was developed through his/her interactions with other characters. This book is a text on how to effectively achieve that development. Poke's interaction with Rose and Miaow obviously builds one layer of his character. His relationship with his friend Arthit adds another. But what makes Poke most interesting is his connection to characters like his half-sister, Ming Li. Poke doesn't know he even has a sister until she shows up with their father in Bangkok on Poke's doorstep. Ming Li and Poke are both adults, Poke being older than Ming-Li, but at times they seem to be going through the growing pains of typical young siblings. Ming-Li will often consult Poke on her American slang, like she's learning from her older brother, "'It is so not the bomb," Ming Li says. To Rafferty she says, "Did I get that right?"' And Poke will act irritated like his little sister is such a pest and a nuisance in his life, "'I'm not really the go-to guy on hip-hop. If you want to know anything about OFR, though, I'm your man.'" But you still sense a connection between the two, like they will pick at one another, but if an outsider were to attack one the other would immediately come to the defense.

All of the characters were extremely rich and added so much to the overall book.

The plot comes across at first as being all over the place. If you read the book jacket, you know that Poke is the main character. However, this main character walks himself right into the barrel of a gun and is shot in the face in the first chapter. So how in the world is he going to do anything for the rest of the book, right? Especially since the plot takes place over the course of three DAYS, and no, it isn't a flashback! Now THERE is a hook. And then you add in the counterfeiting ring, the American Secret Service Agent, Elson, the Chinese gangster and all his thugs, stolen rubies...just where is all this going? The way that Hallinan weaves all these independent elements together is phenomenally intriguing and it keeps the pace of the book quick.

The tone of the book could have gotten very dark and dreary, but Hallinan's wit lightens the heaviness. Rafferty's sarcasm, the banter between he and Arthit, Ming Li's attempts with American slang, Miaow's boldness, it all adds wonderful humor and airy-ness so you don't feel like you're drudging through darkness.

I have to say, if you haven't picked up on it already, The Fourth Watcher has been an extremely memorable staycation for me. I highly recommend it!


Munyin July 26, 2008 at 10:59 AM  

Hi Jen,
I'm Tim Hallinan's wife and I just wanted to write to say how much I enjoyed reading your piece.
Thank you!

Jen July 26, 2008 at 11:20 AM  

Thanks for stopping by. It is always so much fun to write reviews for books that are as much fun to read as The Fourth Watcher was. I'm looking forward to reading more of Tim's work!


CindyLV July 28, 2008 at 12:17 AM  

What a GREAT review! I heartily concur with your assessment of the book.

And, may I say that you have a smooth writing style yourself!

Jen July 28, 2008 at 6:00 AM  

Thanks Cindy! That's very nice of you to say. So glad you stopped by!

Lisa July 28, 2008 at 11:22 PM  

Now that's how to write a great book review. I love everything you said and you made me want to read THE FOURTH WATCHER all over again!

Dana King August 13, 2008 at 2:44 PM  

I was fortunate enough to review THE FOURTH WATCHER myself, and I fully concur with your review. We both mentioned Tim's gift with the language, but you chose better examples than I. Your review brought me right back to the world of the book. Thanks.

CindyLV August 17, 2008 at 2:09 AM  

Hi again, Jen. Your review sparked me to write my own review on my blog. I posted it last week at:

I also posted it on Do you think you might be convinced to also post yours on Amazon, too? Thanks!


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