I have had an interesting (well, interesting to me, at least) experience reading Timothy Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series. The series, which began with 2007’s A Nail Through the Heart, is soon to be seven books long, but I only started reading it at book number five, The Fear Artist. Since then, I have read book six, book four, and now finally book one. As I always try to read a series in the order the books are published, this jumping around has, I think, given me a different perspective on the evolution of main characters than the one I usually get.
I do not mean to imply that Tim Hallinan’s plots are not first class crime thriller plots when I say that the main reason I keep reading the Poke Rafferty books is that I have fallen in love with several of the main characters. Poke Rafferty, travel writer, has come to Thailand to continue his rather cynical series of travel books but he finds things in Bangkok that he very much needed: a good woman and a purpose for his life. Rose, a Thai bar girl, would seem to be an unlikely choice for a wife, but Poke senses that there is more to Rose than meets the eye (and she certainly attracts the eye). And then there’s Miaow, the little girl that Poke cannot bear to leave on Bangkok’s dangerous streets. Miaow is a streetwise, precocious little kid who is wise beyond her years. She has a mouth on her and a deadly sense of humor, and it easy to understand why Poke cares for her so deeply.
And there’s Arthit, one of the very few honest policeman in Bangkok - and Poke’s best friend. These two have the kind of friendship that every man needs but seldom finds. Theirs is a relationship built on trust, honesty, respect, and a genuine fondness for each other. And then, of course, there is Poke himself, a man whose very nature makes it impossible for him to ignore the evilness he sees on the streets of Bangkok. As Rose said to Poke when they were discussing marriage, “You see a problem and your response is to fix it, like a broken air conditioner…” That’s Poke: Mr. Fix It.
The thing that surprised me about A Nail Through the Heart is that each of the main characters is already so fully fleshed out as introduced in this series opener. More times than not, in my experience, an author will continue to add layers to the continuing characters for several books rather than to have them this refined in an opener. They more often focus on plot as a way to ensure that readers will want to read the next book in the series. Hallinan, instead, manages first time out to combine a top-notch thriller plot with unique, memorable characters.
A Nail Through the Heart takes a long, hard look at what is still one of the main industries of Asian cities like Bangkok: prostitution. If the Bangkok bar girl lifestyle were not already bad enough, the sexual exploitation of the city’s street children puts Bangkok in a league all its own. Poke Rafferty refuses to watch the exploitation of those too weak to defend themselves – and if he has to play dirty to rescue a child or a young woman, he is ready to do whatever it takes.
Bottom Line: The Poke Rafferty books may not be for the faint of heart or the easily offended, but readers willing to open their eyes to the real world are guaranteed to learn something in every book – even if it is only about themselves.