The Fourth Watcher, A Novel of Bangkok, published by William Morrow, June 2008, is Tim Hallinan’s sequel to A Nail Through The Heart. This mystery/thriller explodes out of the starting blocks in the first chapter when Poke Rafferty discovers he’s being followed by three men, apparently well-trained, executing a graceful rolling maneuver formation. You (and Poke) race through the shops and steamy backstreets of Bangkok, jinking and dodging, running for your life, evading the chasers and cursing your height in the sea of much shorter Asians until, sweat stinging your eyes, you turn the corner gasping . . . and one of the chasers steps out of a doorway, pulls out a gun and shoots Poke in the face.
Heh, heh, heh…you say to yourself as you turn the page to begin Chapter Two and catch your breath. He had it coming. Poke’s the kind of guy who creeps around the edges of life, a travel writer who sticks his pen into slimy messes and coaxes others to take the ride. Who could possibly like a guy like that?
Well, it turns out I may have been wrong about Poke. In the first book of this series, A Nail Through The Heart, I discovered that I could like a guy like that. A guy who writes books for guys who are looking for trouble. A guy who hangs out in shady clubs with even shadier characters. A guy who dates a six-foot tall dancer from one of said clubs. And we all know about the kind of girls who work in those clubs.
Well, I may have been wrong about her, too. Rose, the former hooker (excuse me, go-go dancer), Poke describes as “hurtfully beautiful”, pulled herself up from the streets and out of the night life to start a cleaning business where she employs former dancers, giving them a chance to earn an honest living. A woman who convinces Poke to give up the dark life, settle down, build a home and raise a family.
And while I’m at it, let me go ahead and admit that I may have been a little quick to label Poke’s adopted daughter Miaow as just a wounded street kid, a throw-away. A kid who’s seen everything there is to see in the dirty streets and has the emotional scars to prove it. Miaow may be the smartest, most savvy and empathetic character in the entire book. She’s a little girl who loves the color pink, hates being kissed on the head, and is more than capable of staring down an armed kidnapper while dipping her chicken nuggets in her strawberry shake.
And, last one I promise…I was wrong when I decided I wasn’t interested in a mystery/thriller set in Thailand, a place I knew nothing about. An exotic land where the weather is enormous with thundering monsoon rains, blinding heat and clouds as greasy and dark as oil shale, to paraphrase Hallinan. A place where the locals love Americans and their money, and even the secrets have secrets.
Hallinan fulfilled all my requirements for a mystery/thriller with his complex plot, tricky twists, and a cast of lovers, liars, and thieves. However, if you treat this novel as a “beach-read” and breeze through it in a few hours, you’ll miss the mastery of Hallinan’s technique. His narration runs the gamut of style from the pure elegance of a John Williams symphony to the raunchiness of Bull Moose Jackson’s dirty blues. The story swooshes along at a gut-wrenching luge-like pace, so be sure to strap on your spikes, settle evenly into your sled, and get a good grip on the reins before you pick up a copy of The Fourth Watcher. And I highly recommend that you take advantage of the breaks between chapters to pause briefly to rub out your bumps and bruises and tighten your spikes before resuming the reins for the next heat.
As in A Nail Through The Heart, the story is divided into chapters titled with quirky phrases. If you’re not familiar with Hallinan, you may ignore these titles at first, until a particularly snazzy title catches your eye. Each phrase is actually a line from the climax of the chapter, giving you a taste of what’s to come. In essence, Hallinan steals a teensy bit of real estate in your brain, as you make some space to hold onto the phrase until it appears in the chapter text. After a half dozen or so chapters, I willingly relinquished the space so I could smugly celebrate my own little “az”.
My favorite scene comes early in the book, in Chapter 7 where Hallinan’s delicate touch is showcased in his portrayal of the relationship between Poke and Rose. I guarantee that this scene will leave you aching to find this kind of love in your own life. The scene begins with Poke and Rose lying in the dark after making love where he is working up the courage to propose. Poke “jams his eyes shut tight, makes a wide-mouth goblin’s face in the dark to relieve the tension building in his chest, and lets his features return to normal.” After the distraction of a cigarette and a brief discussion about transvestites who dance in the go-go bars, Poke gathers his courage to offer Rose the engagement ring. Again he panics and runs to the kitchen to make coffee instead. As he fumbles to separate a stack of four coffee filters, Rose “ . . . slips a nail under the edge and separates the bundle into two. Then she places the top two filters, still stuck together between her lips and closes her mouth. When her lips part, the filters come apart neatly, one stuck to each lip, and she removes them and extends them to Rafferty. Each of them has a dark red lip print on its edge. ‘The answer is yes,’ she says.” Once she’s accepted, he makes the coffee by jamming two other filters into the basket and dumping the ground coffee into them. Rose asks him what’s wrong with the filters she separated for him. Poke answers, “’Nothing at all,’ he says, feeling as though he will rise into the air, lift off, float inches above the floor. ‘I’ll eat them later.’”
Another example of Hallinan’s exceptional wit may be found in Chapter 10 where Arnold Prettyman, a former spook living in Bangkok, and Poke are sitting in a bar discussing the problem of counterfeit money. Prettyman says, “If North Korea were a person, it would be wrapped in an old blanket, muttering to itself on the sidewalk. Relief organizations send them boats full of rice, since half the f***ing country is starving to death, and the Norkie navy sinks the boats. They buy stuff from other countries and don’t accept the shipment, or they accept it and don’t pay for it. This is not a policy that’s going to produce large streams of foreign revenue.”
Perhaps Hallinan’s greatest strength as a writer is his portrayal of realistic, full-bodied characters and their relationships. This realism, rendered through almost imperceptible brushstrokes of detail layered upon tiny detail, establishes The Fourth Watcher as a set piece of quality writing that defies classification into any simple genre while avoiding the highbrow pretension typically associated with the label “literary fiction.”