Interview with thriller writer Tim Hallinan

It’s my pleasure to be carrying this interview simultaneously with Angela Savage, who writes the excellent Jayne Keeney mysteries starring a female PI in Thailand, Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, and Kevin Cummings, who runs one of the most comprehensive Thailand blogs I know of. As Kevin says, if you haven’t read Tim Hallinan yet you should; but I’d add that you should also dip into these blogs.

  HallinanPicTim Hallinan (his excellent Blog Cabin here) began his career as a writer in the 1990s with the distinctly noir Simeon Grist series. In 2007 he began a second series, set in Bangkok and featuring “rough-travel” writer Philip (“Poke”) Rafferty and his attempts to cobble together a family comprising a former go-go dancer and a precocious street urchin named Miaow. In 2011 he returned to the Los Angeles setting for his third series starring Junior Bender, the best private detective a mobster could have. The second Junior, “Little Elvises”, has just been nominated for the Shamus Award as Best Private Eye Novel of 2013, while the next Junior Bender, “Herbie’s Game”, has been chosen as one of the coming summer’s top ten thrillers by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY magazine and as one of the ten best thrillers for July by Amazon. It’s also been selected as an IndieNext book of the month by the U.S. association of Independent booksellers, and a great review just appeared in BOOKPAGE (with the title These Boots Are Made For Kicking Butt – I wish I’d thought of that!)

“Herbie’s Game”, the fourth in the Junior Bender series, will be appearing in mid-July, to be followed in November by the sixth Poke Rafftery.

  1. Tim, can you tell us a little about “Herbie’s Game”?

HerbieHERBIE’S GAME is the fourth in my series of books about Junior Bender, a first-rate Los Angeles burglar who moonlights (when forced to) as a private eye for crooks.  He’s been the smartest guy in the room for most of his life, and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the thugs in his (anti)social circle, and when one of them becomes the victim of a crime or a threat, they know they’re not going to get a sympathetic, gee-we’d-better-solve-this-tout-suite reaction from the cops, so they turn instead to Junior. What this usually means that he’s in danger of being killed by the culprit if it looks like he might succeed, on one hand, and–on the other hand–in danger of being killed by his client if he fails.  So in addition to solving the crime, Junior has to pay a lot of attention to staying alive.

In HERBIE’S GAME, a continuing character, a sort of executive crook named Wattles, finds his office burglarized one fine morning, and the only thing missing is a piece of paper on which he unwisely wrote the names of the crooks in a chain he was using to pass along to a hitman the name of the victim and the payment.  The chain guarantees that the hitman has no idea who hired him and it also builds an ideal defence case for Wattles because if things go awry, all the prosecution witnesses will be convicted felons, and as one character says, defence lawyers have a word for such trials: they call them acquittals.  Wattles thinks Junior might have committed the burglary, but Junior knows immediately that the thief was his mentor, the legendary Herbie Mott, who took Junior under his wing when Junior was only seventeen and became a surrogate father to the budding burglar.  And then Herbie shows up dead, with no stolen piece of paper in sight, and Junior knows that he has to follow the names in the chain to get to Herbie’s murderer.  As he does, he begins to find that Herbie may have been a very different kind of man that Junior thought he was, and Junior has to ask himself how much of the life he’s living — a life that frequently leaves him feeling unsatisfied and adrift — is his own invention, and how much of it is just Herbie’s game.  Sorry to rattle on at such length.

  1. “Herbie’s Game” is a very funny book, and the humour derives mostly from the characters. In fact I get the impression that you enjoy writing bad guys more than good guys. What is it about crooks that excites your imagination?

They have a special energy. They don’t have to be politically correct, or even polite.  They can say whatever they want. They can go from A to D without bothering with B and C. Best of all they have highly personal and idiosyncratic moral codes, which they frequently invent on the fly.  In my non-Junior books, I usually have to work to keep the bad guys and gals from taking over.  I decided to deal with that issue by writing a series that’s essentially all crooks, and writing them makes me very, very happy.

Another thing I like about writing the Juniors is that, for all of us, whatever we’re doing makes sense to us. I think much of what the characters in these books do, sometimes on a daily basis, skirts the fuzzy edge of insanity, and part of what makes their characters so much fun to write are the internal justifications and accommodations they’ve made in order to accept the things they do.  But when the tide goes out and they’re old, like Dressler or Burt the Gut, what’s left is just a normal person, usually not very happy.

  1. You also have an amazing rapport with female characters – I’m thinking Dolly’s adolescent beginnings in the movie game in “The Fame Thief”, Rose’s journey from village beauty to Bangkok bargirl, and the daughters of Junior and Poke. 

I have no explanation for that.  Until three Rafferty books ago — Breathing Water, I think — I’d never written two women alone in a room.  I was afraid to — how did I know what women talked about when no men were around?  But then, for QUEEN OF PATPONG, I was stuck writing huge section of the book — 40,000 words or something – that was all women, and women at a very intimate juncture in their lives.  Having been forced into the sex trade, they were trying to find a way to lead their new lives while keeping their hearts and spirits intact and learning to divorce sex from emotion and intimacy.  And the story and characters just came in huge bolts, like yardage.  Geraldine Page, who knew all there was to know about acting, said, “When the character uses you, that’s when you know you’re really cooking. You know you’re in complete control, yet you get the feeling that you’re not doing it.  You don’t completely understand it, and you don’t have to.”

It feels since QUEEN like I’m writing women all the time, and it’s great because it’s opened up a whole range of stories I couldn’t have written otherwise. And as for Miaow, she’s always been the easiest character in the series because she always, always has an agenda.  And I can’t say much of anything about THE FAME THIEF — that whole book arrived by air mail.  I just wrote as fast as I could to keep up.

  1. Your second book this year is “For The Dead”, the sixth in the Bangkok-based Poke Rafferty series. Can you tell us something about this?


Well, speaking of Miaow, FOR THE DEAD is largely Miaow’s book.  On the thriller side it’s a story about police corruption, power, and murder on a grand scale, but on the emotional side it’s about what happens to a 13-year-old girl who’s created a new identity to impress the snotty kids in her fancy school when every lie she’s told is suddenly exposed and she loses even the boy she was falling in love with and–she thinks–the security of the home Poke and Rose made for her.  It is, to put as benign a face on it as possible, a major growth experience.  Things also change forever, over the course of the book, for Poke and Rose. (I will say with some astonishment, since the book almost killed me, that it’s getting some of the best early reviews of my life.)

  1. It seems to me that each adventure in the Poke series centres around Poke’s attempts to create a family in the midst of a world which is essentially malignant. Poke wins every battle, though only just, and with each victory his private world of love and family is strengthened. What’s your own take on the world of the Poke series?

You’re spot on. I think of it as a series about three people who have unexpectedly been given a second or third chance at a kind of life they thought they could never have.  It’s almost an accident that the family is so central.  When I wrote the very first book, I wanted to make it clear from the beginning that this was not a me-love-you-long-time book in which beautiful brown women fall helplessly and inexplicably in love with uninteresting white males. So in our first glance at Poke ever he’s holding his daughter’s hand and following his wife as they go grocery shopping.  And then Miaow takes off after Superman and the center of the book’s interest shifts to that apartment.  I had to fight to keep the thriller moving forward.  If I have my way I’ll write the series until Miaow moves out, at 19 or so, leaving Poke and Rose behind.  One of things I like best about the Pokes is that in the middle of the city of instant gratification you’ve got three people clinging for all they’re worth to the middle-class ideal of a functioning, loyal family.

  1.  Both the LA and the Bangkok series seem to me to be extremely visual and filmable. Who do you see playing Junior – Johnny Depp? How about Poke – give Owen Wilson a try on that?

Boy, you got me.  The Pokes were bought for cable although the experiment failed, and the Juniors have been optioned a couple of times.  I’m hampered in my attempt to answer this question by the fact that I watch almost nothing.  Poke is part Filipino, so someone with some Asian blood would seem to be called for.  Keanu Reeves looks interestingly battered in the fascinating documentary he directed about the transition from film to video.  There’s an actor attached to Junior right now, and while I can’t say who it is (in case it falls through) he’s no one who would come immediately to your mind.  I think he’s got to project intelligence; someone once suggested Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and when I saw him, I thought he’d be great.

  1. With two books out this year, what’s next? I understand you’re working on a return of the main character from your very first series, Simeon Grist, in what sounds like a very novel scenario. Any news on that?

The seventh Simeon, PULPED, has been finished for more than a year but so it’s far unsatisfactory to me, although I think about 80% of it works.  What happens is that Simeon has been banished to a kind of limbo that’s reserved for the heroes of unsuccessful crime series.  When the last unsold copy of the final book in the series is pulped to make paper for a new (and presumably better) book, pop, the character finds himself stranded, possibly forever, in the environment his/her author created as the primary setting, in a kind of gerrymandered neighborhood where everyone else is also the hero/heroine of discontinued crime series.  This is kind of a shock to begin with because fictional characters don’t know they’re not real until they’re suddenly in limbo, severed from the real world. The only connection with the world in which we live is when someone down here opens one of the books in the series, at which point Simeon (or the hero of whatever book it is) can look up, so to speak, through the page at the person who’s reading it.  He’s doing just that when someone kills the reader.  He doesn’t have enough readers to take this lightly, so he has to find a way down there and find out whodunnit.  That gives me a chance to write a lot of (to me) very funny and quite difficult scenes between a real person and a fictional one, including a love affair.  If I had a month I could (and eventually will) rewrite the first 25%, which is where the problems are.

So this July, HERBIE’S GAME comes out, and in November it’s FOR THE DEAD.  At the moment I’m writing the seventh Poke, THE HOT COUNTRIES, and the fifth Junior, KING MAYBE.  God willing, they’ll both be good.

  1. I think it was Dorothy Parker who said something to the effect that she hated writing but loved having written – meaning, I guess, that writing is hard work. P.G. Wodehouse in contrast brought out slightly more books than he had years in his life. Are you a Parker or a Wodehouse?

Writing is very hard work and enormous fun at the same time.  There are days when I’d rather be a lab rat than write, and there are days when writing is the only thing in the world that matters to me.  I hate to do it and I love to do it and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

  1. Every day we see articles about the demise of traditional bookstores and publishers in the face of Amazon and Kindle, and even warnings about the death of books. Joe Konrath, of course, feels that books and writers will get along very well without publishers and booksellers. You yourself brought out Junior as a self-published ebook series before switching back to traditional publishing. Where do you see the future heading?

I’m no prophet, although I think the growth of online commerce of all kinds is inevitable, barring some absolutely horrific systemic security breach that drives people back to the stores.  But where you buy the book or what format you buy it in–both those things are just delivery systems for the text.  And I think that text is alive and well and will continue to thrive as long as people want to tell and read (or hear) stories.


Everyone Burns

everyone burnsEveryone Burns (available here from Amazon/Kindle) is the first installment of John Dolan’s Time, Blood and Karma series. The introit goes something like this:

Samui, January 2005: a foreign tourist has been murdered and his body incinerated. Robbery is not the motive – the wallet is left on the corpse. Nor, one hopes, is sex, since the victim is male. The murder of foreign tourists is a dreadful thing, and Chief Charoenkul does what any thoughtful policeman in his position would do: nothing. After all, if he investigated the murder he’d have to publicise it, and that would be bad for the tourist industry.

Then another foreigner turns up dead and barbequed. Charoenkul‘s superiors call in a superior officer from the mainland to take over the case. This is potentially career destroyingly bad for Charoenkul. Thinking quickly, he in turn calls in David Braddock, Samui’s only but unlicensed farang private eye and a man with a secret past. (A very interesting secret it is too – when it’s revealed it hits like a killer whale on a penguin). If he, Braddock, will kindly find the real murderer then he, Charoenkul, will be eternally grateful and might not throw him, Braddock, off the island after all. What Charoenkul doesn’t know is that he, Braddock, is having an affair with his, Charoenkul‘s, wife.

Over on Goodreads it has 57 reviews, almost all with five stars, which is no mean feat – Goodreads reviewers can be brutal. It deserves the five star ratings. The story is beautifully structured, the setting richly realised, the characters compelling. Dolan is also skillful at integrating the apparently obligatory instructions on Buddhism into his story – that sort of thing can be a drag, but our author seems to have avoided the trap. In fact there’s a hefty dose of Buddhist metaphysics in the title, but I’ll leave that for you to unravel.

Dolan has website/blog here and website here, (why two I have no idea), on which he explains what he’s trying to do with Time, Blood and Karma:

The ‘Time, Blood and Karma’ series comprises novels spanning the period from the aftermath of World War II to the present day. While each book contains a complete story, the novels collectively form part of a larger narrative trajectory involving themes of relationship and the consequences of actions in an interconnected world.


The individual stories can be classified as belonging to the mystery/thriller genre (the emphasis between ‘thriller’ and ‘mystery’ varying by book). Most of the action takes place in South East Asia – although there are interludes in other parts of the world – and the imagery and philosophy of the series is essentially Buddhist in nature. The overarching narrative jumps forward and backward in time to show the planting and ripening of the seeds of karma.


The series is really about interconnection – the idea that everything is connected to everything else…

If everything is connected to everything else, I wonder what Mr Dolan will make of this: while researching this review I looked him up on the universally respected Wikipedia, and I found this:

John Carrol Dolan (born 1955) is an American poet, author and essayist. …  completed a PhD thesis on the … Marquis de Sade. … has held various jobs including attack-dog handler at a truckyard in Oakland. …  In 2001 Dolan resigned his academic post and moved to Moscow … He was the first reviewer of A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, a bestseller featured on Oprah‘s monthly bookclub, to correctly expose this alleged memoir as fraudulent … (the title of Dolan’s review was “A Million Pieces of Shit” and the first line was “This is the worst thing I have ever read”) … Dolan relocated to Canada to teach at the University of Victoria in Canada ….  fired for encouraging students to criticize George Monbiot …. Until spring 2010 was an associate professor of English composition and literature at the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani….. fired in 2010 and wrote a lengthy article on his experience there.

This feisty John Carrol Dolan is not, I repeat not, the author of noir thrillers set in Samui, but everything is connected, no?

If you’d prefer the real John Dolan (ah those Buddhist themes – what is reality?) he does an interview here in which he gives the reviewer a writing tip (don’t do it, it’s more addictive than heroin – buy a dog instead), and another here, in which he reveals that the series will have seven titles and that he has a little man inside his head who makes up the stories and he, John, just writes them down. I’ve heard about this little man from a lot of writers so I think it must be true.

John is on twitter here.

Thai Footprint

FootprintThai Footprint is the blog of Bangkok-based Kevin Cummings (link here). He describes it as being about “People, Things, Literature, Music and Henry Miller too.” Kevin cites a quote from Henry as the inspiration for the blog: “Develop an interest in life as you see it; the people, things, literature, music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself.” Quite right – these days I find myself forgetting things all the time. I remember Henry, though – he was one of the giants of the two decades or so following World War II, an apostle of freedom and self-liberation. He used to hang out a lot with Larry Durrell, the brother of Gerald – Gerald (as in the hilarious My Family and Other Animals) became famous before his older brother, then the Alexandria Quartet started appearing, all Gothic sex and purple prose, leaving unwary readers perplexed. “It’s a book by that nice Mr Durrell,” one old lady explained at the local library. “I expect it’s about animals.” Kevin says this about himself:

I have split the last fourteen years between Thailand and a small beach community in Northern California. I like to read. I like to creatively consume. Here I display a great deal about the artists, poets, novelists, musicians, photographers and the occasional muse who create in Thailand and SEA. Gop, the very cool and relaxed frog in the coconut shell was drawn by the very talented, cool and relaxed author / cartoonist, Colin Cotterill, to whom I am very grateful. I’m not a writer but my articles have been published in a few places. In the long run, John Maynard Keynes is going to be right.

The sections in the blog are:

The Henry Miller section is a collection of quotes from the great man. He was great, too – a little overlooked today, unfortunately. My advice is to start with Gerald Durrell’s three books about his boyhood on Corfu in the 30s, then read Lawrence Durrell’s Spirit of Place. Then read Henry. There are Interviews with, among others, Chris Minko of Khmer Krom, and artist/photographer Chris Coles. And there are book reviews – lots and lots of them, of which I especially recommend his review of Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series.

Kevin’s blog is a must-have for anyone seriously interested in Southeast Asia.

Song for an Approaching Storm

SongSong for an Approaching Storm (link to Kindle here) came out in English on 13 March 2014, with a fair bit of fanfare. The author, Peter Fröberg Idling, has an article in the Guardian on 20 March listing his top ten recommended books on Cambodia – you don’t get invited to contribute to the Guardian without good reason.

Idling (I hope that’s the right way to deal with Swedish surnames) trained as a lawyer, and worked as legal advisor to an aid organization in Cambodia 2001-2003, revisiting in 2005 and in 2008. His first book was the non-fiction Pol Pot’s Smile (2006), about a Swedish delegation who visited Cambodia at the height of the KR genocide without seeing anything alarming. If you find that unbelievable, bear in mind the innumerable visitors to Hitler’s Germany pre-1939 and to Stalin’s Russia who also saw nothing.

Here’s the publisher’s blurb for Song:

Idling’s book is historical fiction with a twist that will leave you breathless. Its intriguing conceit is based on a real-life anecdote repeated by Pol Pot’s former mentor, Keng Vannsak: that Pol Pot’s relentless radicalisation came about partly as the result of a broken heart….

Working as a legal advisor in Cambodia at the time, Idling began to research the story in earnest, talking to former colleagues of Pol Pot and trying to track down Pol Pot’s former fiancee, Somaly—was she still alive? And what of her involvement, while she was engaged to Pol Pot, with deputy Prime Minister Sam Sary? A fascinating tale of a love triangle between the three began to emerge… the result was this spellbinding, shattering novel.

Which I guess is what a publisher would say about any book, but early reviews back it up: “a beautifully evocative and compulsive book,” says the Daily Mail reviewer; “Who would have thought I could read about Pol Pot in a sympathetic light?  But such is the power of this must-read novel.”

I’ve bought the book but haven’t had time to read it yet – when I do I’ll review it on Amazon and Good Reads. And by the way, if you, dear reader of this blog, like a book, please review it on those two – it’s good for the author’s fragile ego, and, better, for sales. (Alternatively, if you think  book has wasted precious hours of your limited life, you can say that too).

Before I start reading, I want to pick up a point Idling makes in his Guardian piece on the Ten Best Books on Cambodia:

One might look at my following selection and ask where the contemporary Cambodian novels are. The answer, sadly, is that the authors in Cambodia are marginalised and struggling – there aren’t even any publishing houses. Very little of their work is translated into English. Thus, there are many foreign authors in the following list. But good literature knows no nationality or borders.

I sort of agree, but also sort of don’t. It’s true that Cambodian authors are struggling, but authors struggle everywhere – novelists make their living in all sorts of ways, but rarely from royalties. If you want to know about contemporary Cambodian authors, read Walter Mason’s recent travel book, Destination Cambodia – Walter is exuberant, endlessly enthusiastic, and knows his Cambodian authors. There’s also Sue Guiney’s writing schools in Siem Reap, and I believe Christopher G. Moore is doing things with Cambodian writers following Phnom Penh Noir.

Song for an Approaching Storm, published by Pushkin Press (which is English, despite the name) is available on Kindle (thank God the publisher is being sensible about ebooks and not attempting to charge an arm and a leg in order to subsidise the paper version) and from Amazon and in tangible form from Monument Books. I recommend Monument – you get the chance to browse real books, there’s nothing quite like it.

Shiny Objects of Desire

Shiny ObjectsShiny Objects of Desire is available from Monument Books at $13.50. Wayne McCallum’s review appeared in The Advisor on 22 November

“The cover of Shiny Objects Of Desire is a fairly prosaic photograph of Phnom Penh’s waterfront in the gathering twilight of a Mekong evening. It’s a view that anyone who has spent time atop Le Moon or one of the other numerous Riverside rooftop haunts will know well. It’s a nice enough photograph; it’s just, well, sort of plain for a ‘shop window’ to a novel set in the city.

“But open the book out and lay it flat and you find something much more intriguing: a mirror image of the photograph on the front carries over to fill the rear jacket. Now the cover is transformed into something much more interesting and decidedly ‘non-prosaic’.

A cunning conceit, perhaps? PJ Coggan, Shiny Objects’ author, responds thus: “The rather nice mirror-image effect was a serendipitous fluke, for which I thank the young man at the printer’s who was in charge of putting the book together.”

“Hmmm. OK, but the book’s cover is a suitable metaphor as any for Shiny Objects which, on the surface, starts off like a fairly straightforward crime novel but evolves into something much more interesting as its story, like a fan, unfolds across the streets, alleyways and boulevards of Phnom Penh.

“The locations and places mentioned within should be well known to anyone who has spent time in the ‘charming city’. The cover’s riverfront is there, of course, while Norodom Boulevard features early on. Soon enough the less salubrious Street 136 makes an appearance; goodness even the street I live on turns up.

“You can quickly fall into a game of ‘Phnom Penh bingo’, ticking off places that you recognise or which – through the ruse of a disguised name change – can guess, all of which gives the book a sort of homely feel. Coggan certainly seems right at home along Riverside and its surrounding districts, an experience born from an association with the city that began early last decade. “I first visited Phnom Penh in 2002, after leaving a job with the UN in Morocco. I wanted to try a career with more autonomy and decided I’d travel around taking photos and selling travel articles on a freelance basis. In 2006 I came back and stayed till 2008. I’ve been back in 2010 (a trip to Ratanakiri), 2012 (researching a second book) and 2013 (seeing Shiny Objects through the press).”

“So what of the story? Like the cover, the account that lies between does not unfold as you might expect. At the centre of Coggan’s story is Burl, a Riverside expat restaurant owner. Burl is a man carefully avoiding emotional commitments, but who nonetheless remains fiercely loyal to his fellow expat bar-owner friends. Consequently, when one finds himself locked up at Prey Sar prison, Burl sees it as his duty to get his friend out.

“There’s only one problem: the person he needs to placate in order to achieve this noble goal is soon dead as well, and before you can say ‘Tuk tuk snatch-and-grab on Street 19,’ Burl is the prime suspect. So far so normal, you might say, but underneath all this is a much more nuanced tale. As Coggan himself confesses: “The point is contained in the title. If you end up knowing what the shiny objects are, you’ve got it.”

“Besides being a good read, Shiny Objects also serves as a useful knowledge pool of tips and hints of which even the most seasoned expat might not be aware. The most interesting of these, to this reviewer at least, is the fact the local constabulary maintains a file on every foreigner living in the city. Really. “The Foreigners Police really do exist, and they really do keep files on all the foreigners resident in the kingdom,” Coggan says.

“As a regular Mother Teresa, like my fellow Advisor colleagues, I can safely say that my file is probably very small, but the rest of you out there beware: as Shiny Objects shows, there is much more to Phnom Penh than appears on the surface.”