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The Hot Countries by Timothy Hallinan

Published by Soho Crime on October 6, 2015

“We all need friends at times. Doesn’t much matter who they are.” That’s just one of the truths spoken in The Hot Countries, the latest and best of the Poke Rafferty novels. Poke’s friends -- people he might have identified as acquaintances rather than friends before this novel -- are the key to this novel’s success.

Timothy Hallinan writes circles around a number of more popular thriller writers who are just phoning it in. I have never been disappointed by a Hallinan novel. Hallinan’s Junior Bender series is fun, but his Poke Rafferty series probes the human character in greater depth.

In The Hot Countries, Hallinan focuses on aging collateral characters who no longer have a purpose in life and seem incapable of searching for one. Hallinan is a master at writing about people living in emotional pain, people in a state of decline, people who have lost themselves. Fortunately, he balances the darkness with humor and with glimpses of human decency.

Arthur Varney shows up in Bangkok looking for Poke Rafferty. Varney wants something from Poke, maybe a couple of things, both relating to people and events found in The Fear Artist and For the Dead. Like all Poke Rafferty novels, however, The Hot Countries can easily be read as a stand-alone.

One of the strongest characters in The Hot Countries (other than Poke) is an old veteran named Wallace who has been destroyed by love more than war. Seeing Varney takes Wallace into his tortured past, giving Hallinan a chance to tell the veteran’s story. A couple of other strong characters are children, particularly Treasure, a girl who has suffered a violent life, some of which was detailed in earlier novels. She’s a kid who is dedicated to survival, but during the course of the novel, circumstances cause Poke to wonder whether he has misjudged her.

Hallinan has a gift for describing Bangkok, from the fat raindrops to the grim tourists and grizzled expats who choke its streets. He also has a strong grasp of Thai people and culture, of bar girls and the foreign customers who never bother to probe beneath the smiling fantasies that occupy a week or two of their lives. Hallinan’s prose is descriptive, fresh, and engaging, but it’s also honest. He describes Poke (a travel writer) as staring at his laptop “as he tried to find his way to a sentence he believed.” I love Hallinan’s novels because, unlike so many current crime writers, Hallinan always writes sentences I can believe.

Astute observations of human nature combine with escalating tension in a novel that is alternately chilling and moving. The ending couldn’t be better. The Hot Countries is exactly what a thriller should be -- a novel about the triumph of the human spirit that features ordinary people in threatening situations who reveal their strengths and flaws as they strive to overcome adversity. It is the best novel I’ve read by Hallinan. He is now permanently enshrined as one of my favorite contemporary crime writers.


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