Monday, August 8, 2011

H is for Hallinan: Timothy Hallinan

Today I welcome Tim Hallinan to the continuing Mystery Author Alphabet Meme.

Timothy Hallinan is the author of the highly praised Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, the latest of which, The Queen of Patpong, was nominated for both the Edgar and the Macavity as Best Novel of 2010. He's also writing a series of e-book originals he describes as "thrillers with a laugh track," about a Los Angeles burglar who moonlights as a private eye for crooks. The series begins with Crashed. Most recently, he conceived and edited Shaken: Stories for Japan, a Kindle e-book anthology of original stories by well-known mystery writers, with every penny (including Amazon's share) going to the 2011 Japan Relief Fund. Hallinan lives in Santa Monica and Southeast Asia.


What is it about murder, anyway?

Sure, it's a rock through a window that can never be repaired, a hole punched in the world that can never be refilled, a gunshot that doesn't stop reverberating for years. It's one of a small number of acts that turns the person who commits it into someone else forever, which is probably why those of us who mess around with fiction usually find the murderer more interesting than the victim.

Who remembers the old woman Raskolnikov kills, and who can forget Raskolnikov?

One of my problems with serial-killer fiction is that I find people who kill over and over to be much less interesting than people who do it once. I doubt that Ted Bundy was any different after he killed his ninth victim than he was after his fourth. When I read these characters, they're played in my mind's eye by the kind of all-surface actors who float from TV series to TV series with no change except that he's “Ted” in one and “Hank” in the other.

On the other hand, look at old Macbeth before and after the killing of Duncan. It's like slow-motion footage of an imploding building.

So if I'm interested in the effect of murder on the murderer, that means that I find some kinds of murders more interesting, fictionally speaking, than others. I'm not particularly interested in spur-of-the-moment self-defense, for example. It may be thrilling if it's written well, but I don’t think it’s intrinsically any more interesting than any other largely instinctive behavior.

I suppose that the killings I find most interesting are the ones in which the killer feels he or she is acting morally – that the murder is an appropriate and justifiable thing to do. The aftermath of such an act will create deep fracture lines in anyone who isn't a sociopath.

Those killings fall into the “gray area” of morality, which is the area that I like to write about. When I decided to set my second series in Bangkok, I did it in part because Bangkok is especially rich in gray areas. (I believe that a hard-line, black-and-white moral sense is a privilege of the well-fed.) And since I think quite a bit about murder, I decided in the first Bangkok book, A Nail Through the Heart, that I would introduce those spacious gray areas by turning at least one of the conventions of crime fiction inside out – I would make all the murderers innocent and all the victims guilty.

Naturally, in writing the book, I gave a lot of thought to what comprises a justifiable murder, and in the end, my middle-class, as-yet-innocent American travel writer, Poke Rafferty, commits one himself. It’s partly self-defense but there’s a conscious decision before he pulls the trigger, and that very brief decision process is one of my favorite parts of the book. Some readers have said they laughed when it happens, and I take that as a high compliment. And Poke goes through a shattering aftermath, one that actually requires an improvised Buddhist exorcism to expiate.

I don’t actually believe that murder is ever truly justified, but at the same time I do believe that there are people who shouldn’t be allowed to live. So that puts me in a moral conundrum. But I'll live with it because it's the kind of internal stress fracture that produces questions that can be worked out through the writing of books.

And to be honest, I should admit that there is one serial killer in the Bangkok books, in The Queen of Patpong. And I decided I was going to forgo all the psychological insight about how he became that way (which we've all read a hundred times) and present him instead as his victims experience him when he lurches, a walking blunt-force instrument, into their world. I could get away with that because the book isn't actually about him, but about his effect on the life of the victim who survives, Poke's Thai wife, Rose. And I think it works: we do see the squirming mass of dark worms at the center of his being, but we see it through his actions, and when he's gone, it's gone, too—except in memory and nightmares.

And as long as I'm at this, let me outrage some people by saying that my primary problem with cozies is that they deal with murder as a puzzle rather than a messy, violent reversion to the world that Tennyson said “is red in tooth and claw.” Too many of them stuff the murder in a cage in a little-used corner of the parlor, like a small but mildly dangerous dog that you don't want to feed with your fingers. And I think that dishonors murder victims and trivializes our primal sin.

Not that anyone asked me.


Meredith Cole said...

Love your point about some books just making murder a "puzzle" to be solved. I also have a problem with books that just kill endless bad guys with no real consequences or ramifications. Murder is horrific and it is much more interesting for me to read (and write) books where the murder is an enormous tragedy that shakes up the lives of the characters. I don't read many serial killer books either...

Timothy Hallinan said...

Thanks, Meredith, I appreciate the comment. If murder is just a plot mechanism, it tells me (although I probably already knew it) that the writer isn't invested in her characters, and I'm outta there as fast as I can close the book. And thanks to divine intervention and the public's good taste, serial murderer books seem to be on the wane. (Although I did just write one, sort of.)

And thanks to Janet for giving me this opportunity to vent.

Anonymous said...

Sounds quite interesting and would love a chance to start the series! Thanks for wonderful opportunity!