[24 June 2007]
It is not flesh and blood but the heart that makes us fathers and sons.
Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart features rough-and-tumble Bangkok street kids, former Khmer Rouge sadists, pasty pederasts, and a not-so-typical American-Thai romance. What elevates it above other strictly genre thrillers is its stubborn focus on family and how the links between people, burdened with complexity and pain, ultimately give meaning to otherwise chaotic, meaningless, and violent lives. In this regard, A Nail Through the Heart can be read as an anti-noir, eschewing the taciturn, solitary detective for a man whose only desire is to connect.
Hallinan’s protagonist, Poke Rafferty, does seem at first glance like a watered-down expatriate Philip Marlowe. Some of the descriptions of Bangkok (“a sky low enough to scrape a nail against,” “the livid greenness of the trees”) utilize a hard-edged simplicity so familiar that the language is almost transparent. The reader sees right through to the city’s teeming streets, which stream with young refugees from the tsunami. Rafferty’s girlfriend Rose describes the many dead as “hungry ghosts” who have left their lives incomplete. As a literary device, the tsunami works well, precisely because Hallinan doesn’t overuse it. People have disappeared. Were they “down south” when the wave hit? Or is the cause something more human, more sinister?
The narrative isn’t anything flashy, but it’s well constructed, lively, and doesn’t strain the bounds of credibility. Rafferty, author of a series of adventure guidebooks for young men, wants to adopt a street child named Miaow and marry Rose, a former bar girl. When Miaow runs into a former friend from the street named Superman, Rafferty gets roped into trying to track down several mysterious characters who may or may not have something in common. The unraveling of these connections occupies the main action of the novel. It’s standard thriller fare and Hallinan doesn’t overreach, but instead focuses his attention on bringing his fictional Bangkok to life.
Author of a six-book series featuring LA detective Simeon Grist, Hallinan takes his readers a little further afield this time. He spends half the year in Thailand and it shows. Pitch-perfect descriptions of the city of eight million with its outdoor dining stalls, cheerful squalor, pulsating strip clubs, and humid shadows add depth and color to a tightly wound story that’s full of misdirection, surprises, and humor.
Hallinan differentiates A Nail Through the Heart from other rote thrillers set in exotic locales with the tenderness it has at its heart. Where authors of most genre work would trip over themselves in an attempt to humanize the story, Hallinan seems to sincerely care about his characters; even transient actors receive a moment or two of his full consideration.
The intricate pattern of the web that ties everyone together—not in a Sam Spade whodunit sort of way, but in a Buddhist we’re all part of the same living universe” way—emerges as the true theme of the work. The Buddhist characters of Hallinan’s Bangkok practice daily acts of devotion, which in the hands of a less confident or overly ambitious writer could easily seem too fraught with symbolism. Instead, talk of ghosts, spirits, and offerings grounds the characters in the literary city that’s half reality and half dream.
Rafferty constantly finds himself misunderstanding or rubbing awkwardly against the Thai culture he’s so determined to join. This friction between the bemused American detective and the exotic others isn’t anything new, but the dedication with which Rafferty attempts to acculturate gives a depth of feeling to a basic thriller. Rafferty’s negotiations with the Rose, Miaow, and Superman take the form of an awkward courting dance, three steps forward, two steps back. He may not be the smartest guy in the world, but he’s persistent and he’s got a good heart, two characteristics he shares with even the most hardboiled of detectives.
Hallinan takes his time in the scenes detailing the courtship between Rafferty and Rose, or the lengthy, frustrating gauntlet Rafferty must run as a Western man attempting to adopt a Thai girl. He seems to enjoy describing the slow, tender moments of an American in Bangkok coming to understand the differences in culture, the shared history, and the places where the distances are too wide to bridge. These changes of pace—the majority of the book takes place at breakneck speed, mysteries unraveling into further mysteries, unspeakable depravity uncovered layer by stinking layer—deepen the narrative, allowing the reader a space for empathy that in many other thrillers would be occupied solely by frenetic action.
It is this respect he has for his characters that ultimately make reading A Nail Through the Heart more than just a quick and scary ride through the seamier side of Bangkok. In a refreshing deviation from the norm, Timothy Hallinan’s real concern lies not with the crafting of a well-paced thriller (which he’s done quite successfully), but with turning the classic hardboiled rugged individualist detective of American noir into a man whose greatest concern is the formation of a family. It’s enough to make Raymond Chandler roll over in his grave.