Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Timothy Hallinan: Half-Cocked Hitchcock

Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar and Macavity nominated author of nine widely praised books: eight novels—including the Bangkok Poke Rafferty thrillers, the Los Angeles Simeon Grist Mysteries, and the Junior Bender comic Mysteries, as well as works of non-fiction. 
Tim Hallinan has lived, on and off in Southeast Asia for more than 25 years. He began writing books while enjoying a successful career in the television industry. He wrote songs and sang in a rock band while in college, and many of his songs were recorded by by well-known artists who included the platinum-selling group Bread. For years he has taught a course on “Finishing the Novel.” Tim currently splits his time between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia. 


In the interest of full disclosure let me say that I don't really believe my new book, THE FEAR ARTIST, is half-cocked anything. Instead, it's fully-cocked me, the best book I could write at the time I wrote it, and it's gotten starred reviews all over the place, so it seems to be okay, even if it's not “Rear Window.”

But I did consciously model the story on some of the classic Hitchcock tropes, beginning with the one so brilliantly used in “North By Northwest” and elsewhere—the total innocent thrown mistakenly into the maw of something evil, which he has to defeat somehow. In the first sentence in the book, my hero, travel writer Poke Rafferty, is backing out of a Bangkok paint store, having just bought four gallons of paint to brighten up his apartment.

In the fifth sentence, a very large American man, running at full speed, bumps into Poke and brings him to the pavement. By the end of the third page, the man has been shot to death from sniper distance while on top of Poke, and cops have materialized from nowhere to insist that no shots were fired.

It's all downhill from there. Because the man speaks three words to Rafferty—meaningless to him—several people who are active in the War on Terror in Thailand are afraid those words are very bad news for them, and they'll do anything to put Poke out of commission.

So it's a Hitchcock setup and I go on to develop it with some proven Hitchcock story and suspense mechanics (he discusses these things very generously in his book of interviews with Franҫois Truffaut). But, of course, Hitchcock had several things going for him that I don't.

First, he was Hitchcock. Nothing I can do about that.

Second, he had actors. Despite his famous scorn for actors, Hitchcock worked with the best. His stars were nonpareil, but it was the casting of the small parts where he really stood out. He used great character actors: Norman Lloyd, Martin Balsam, Leo G. Carroll, Jessie Mae Landis, Lurene Tuttle, Robert Ellenstein, Alan Mobray, and on and on—look any of these people up, and you'll recognize them at a glance if you like old movies. These performers could give you an entire character in two lines of dialogue, and then remain vivid in the audience's minds throughout the film. In their absence I have to make do with little black marks on a white page that look the same for the hero as for the villain, so it's up to me to try to make up the loss of those actors by finding other ways to make my minor characters as distinctive and as memorable as possible.

This can be done partly through a good physical description, but it's mostly how they think and talk. You can only describe a character so many times, but dialogue is a description of a different kind; its rhythms, its imagery, the view of the world it suggests, all tell us something about the character. Sometimes, early in a book, I'll go through an exercise in which I have all my characters describe the same thing—say, the front of a hotel—and see how differently they can do it. Once I'm comfortable with the various ways they approach that, I'm more secure in their dialogue.

Here's another thing Hitchcock had that I don't: great cinematographers. I can't take you to Bangkok as vividly as Hitch took his audiences to Monte Carlo or that midwestern cornfield where the crop spraying plane tried to gun down Cary Grant.

What I have instead is the ability to go inside my characters' heads and show the reader Bangkok as they experience it. I've come to believe, in fact, that a place that's just externally described in a book (“Jack looked up at the Tower of Pisa and then checked his watch.”) is essentially scenery, while setting is the relationship between the characters and the place. So while I can't show you Hitchcock's Bangkok (if he had ever filmed Bangkok) I can show you Poke Rafferty's Bangkok. And I can show you other characters' Bangkok, too.

In the end, of course, books and movies are probably different in more ways than they're similar. Perhaps the filmmaker's greatest advantage is that his or her story will be told in a couple hours' time and that the audience comes to it having set aside the interruptions of real life. We, or course, have to seduce the reader over and over again, beckon them back to the book while more important things conspire to interrupt them. I think that makes it all the more important that we learn what we can from Hitchcock and other masters of the various storytelling media. We may be fighting for the reader's attention, but we want them to return to our story eagerly. Reading should be an oasis, not a tug-of-war.


vallerose said...

Enjoyed the article. I think Tim shows a side of Bangkok very well, at least from the books I've read so far.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Thank you, Janet, for letting me get my inferiority complex off my chest. And thanks to Vallerose, too. Glad you've enjoyed the books.