By Beth Terrell
A few years ago, I read Timothy Hallinan's A Nail Through the Heart, which introduced as a secondary character a street child called "Superman." Superman was rough, unwashed, and defiant, kicking an addiction to yaa baa, and fierce in his protection of the small group of street children he looked after. (Miaow, Poke's adopted daughter, was once one of them.) I loved the book; I liked protagonist Poke Rafferty and his cobbled-together family; but Superman completely won my heart.
Now, in Breathing Water, Hallinan brings Superman back to the page, and while the book would be breathtaking without him, his presence puts the book firmly onto my "best books of all time" list. This beautifully written book is the third in Hallinan's series of Bangkok mysteries. It is certainly the richest and the most complex. Once again, the book features "rough travel writer" Poke Rafferty, his Thai wife, Rose, and their adopted daughter, Miaow.
When the book opens, Poke is engaged in a poker game that is actually a sting operation engineered by his friend Arthit, a police officer. Poke is playing with a group of very rich, very powerful men.The three millionaires were expected, but no one expected the man Poke thinks of as "the Big Guy"--Khun Pan. Pan started his life as a penniless village boy, and somehow he has become one of the richest men in Thailand. He is a hero to the poor and dispossesed, and some believe that, if he wanted to become prime minister, he might actually win. To the powerful elite who have always controlled things and believe they should always control things, this is unacceptable.
During the game, Poke wins the opportunity to write Pan's biography. The next morning he is threatened by a nameless faction who threatens to kill him and his family if he writes the book. Soon after, he is threatened by another faction who threatens to kill him and his family if he doesn't write it. Both groups mean business, and both have made it clear that they are watching and can snatch his wife and daughter any time they want.
Poke finds himself, his family, and his friend Arthit caught in a political struggle between the country's richest, most powerful, most corrupt, and most ruthless people. In the midst of this crisis, Superman reenters Poke's life. This time, he has a young woman and a baby in tow; they have run afoul of a baby-selling ring, and Superman (now known as Boo) hopes Poke can help them.
Hallinan portrays the political situation with depth and sensitivity. Pan and the other players are multilayered and complex. It is clear that Hallinan loves Bangkok with all his being, and that he, like his protagonist, has "a yellow heart."
Although all three books stand on their own, I believe Breathing Water is greatly enriched by a knowledge of the events of the previous two books. The more mature Superman's is all the more engaging if you've met him as a child. A subplot involving Arthit and his wife Noi is made all the more poignant by Hallinan's measured revelation of their relationship throughout the series. Miaow's conflicted feelings about the world and her place in it have grown in complexity from the first book to the third.
This book has been called the best thriller of the past five years. I only wish I'd been the first to say it.