If I were giving a lecture on characterization, my primary example would be Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series. Although his novels are thrillers, his characters take precedence over the plot and readers care about them, especially the women who people his books. Tim has an uncanny ability to write convincingly from the female point of view, although he admittedly has no daughters or sisters of his own.
I was enthralled with Rose’s story in Tim’s soon-to-be-released fourth Poke Rafferty novel, The Queen of Patpong. He plunges his series family into imminent danger and then artfully incorporates the backstory to explain why his wife's former lover wants to kill her. As a beautiful virgin teen, Rose--then known as Kwan--has an alcoholic father who plans to sell her into prostitution, but she's lured to Bangkok by an acquaintance who sells her to a tavern owner. There she's expected to dance seductively on stage and “entertain” the customers.
Years later travel writer Poke Rafferty marries her and they adopt a street child to complete their family. But it's the events that take place during Kwan's maturation that make the story so riveting.
The novelist handles the subject with compassion and wry humor, avoiding explicit sex scenes, yet portraying the gritty side of Southeast Asian life. It’s a book that’s difficult to put aside.
Tim spends six months out of the year in Thailand and Cambodia, writing in Asian coffee houses. He explained that on New Year’s Eve 2001, he walked alone through Bangkok all night long. "As I wandered through the back streets, the little neighborhoods tourists don’t see, I asked myself why no one wrote about Thai life beyond the temples and the go-go bars. Within about half an hour, I had Poke and his entire family in my head, as well as one of the two main plots of A Nail Through the Heart, which was the first book in the series. What I like best about the character of Poke is that he’s an outsider who doesn’t understand the culture and who has to learn more about it for his marriage to survive—and to live through some of the situations in which he finds himself.
“The Queen of Patpong is an important book to me because it follows the path several young girls set out on every day, the path that takes them from the dusty, impoverished northeast of Thailand into the brothels and bars of Bangkok. I'd known for some time that I wanted to write Rose's story, but I couldn't find a way to begin it until an e-mail landed in my inbox. I'm part of a small group of people who put up a little money each year to pay parents in the northeast to keep their daughters in school rather than selling them into the sex trade.
“A member of the group sent me a description, complete with photos, of a meeting she'd had with the grandmother of a teenage girl. The teacher had heard that the grandmother was going to accept 60,000 Thai baht (about $1,500 US) from a pimp in exchange for the girl. The meeting took several hours but by the end the grandmother -- who really was living in dire poverty-- accepted a little less than $100 per month to keep her granddaughter in school. One photo of the girl, sitting on a metal stool, her back as curved as the letter C, gave me the first scene of Rose's section of the book."
He was worried about the main section of the book because it's mostly about women "and women at an intimate and difficult juncture in their lives. So I'm especially happy that female reviewers have been extremely kind -- even enthusiastic -- about it.”
I'm one reviewer who's definitely enthusiastic about Tim Hallinan's novels.
(The Queen of Patpong will be released into bookstores August 17 by William Morrow, but the novel may be preordered from Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble and other online sources.)