Breathing Water by Timothy Hallinan

Breathing WaterYet another casualty of my late summer/fall blog hiatus, was the August release of Timothy Hallinan‘s Breathing Water.  I actually had a ARC and read it so that I could write my sparkling review on or near the release date.  Unfortunately, time has slipped well past that date and here we are over a month later.

The good news, however, is that this will have no impact whatsoever on your ability to go out and buy this book – which is what you should do if you have not done so already.  If you are not familiar with Hallinan and his Poke Raferty series then again, please do yourself a favor and rectify this cultural gap.

Poke Rafferty is a American expatriate writer living in Bangkok who in the past has dabbled in detective work (the focus of the previous two books A Nail Through the Heart and The Fourth Watcher).  He is now married to former bar girl Rose and has adopted former street orphan Miaow.  The first two books deal with his juggling of his chaotic professional – if you could call it that – life and the responsibilities of family life.

Breathing Water builds on that but takes it in a slightly different direction.  While his relationship with his family is still central two things are more of a focus this time around: his relationship with his friend the policeman Arthit and the larger political and cultural context of Thailand.

The hook for the story centers on a poker game that Poke is participating in to help Arthit get information on a ring of criminals.  But this game inadvertently ends up embroiling both Poke and Arthit in a much more serious high stakes game.  Poke “wins” a bet and is authorized to write the biography of a major “businessman” in Thailand. But it turns out some powerful people don’t want the book written and others want it written but in a certain way.  Poke is soon caught between the two sides; and soon after that is not so sure he knows which side is which.

What I enjoy about Hallinan’s novels is the way he creates thrillers with great characters in a fascinating setting but still manages to provide an emotional/intellectual component as well.

Sure, Poke is a kind cool handed self-depreciating good guy who always manages to outsmart or outlast the bad guys. And Hallinan balances the action and mystery aspects of the thriller very well.  But there is also the cultural background of Thai society and politics that gets illuminated as the story goes along.  Not in a way that stands out, but in an educational way nonetheless.  Part of reading this book is getting a glimpse into Thailand.

And Hallinan can pack an emotional punch.  Breathing Water begins with a powerful scene as a poor young women from the countryside is instructed in the humiliations and brutalities of professional begging in Bangkok run by powerful thugs.  This thread ties into the larger story line but it also signifies the larger politico-economic issues of Thailand: poverty, class conflict, entrenched power, etc.

Another powerful story line deals with Arthit and his wife’s battle with Parkinson Disease.  In the midst of all the danger and chaos going on around Poke and Arthit both must deal with this tragedy and how it impacts their relationship and what it means for the future.

I have always been a fan of those authors who can take the best of genre and infuse it with some of the depth of more literary fiction.  I count Hallinan in that category.

Don’t get me wrong, Breathing Water is an intelligent and entertaining thriller.  And if that is all you want – it delivers.  But for those who enjoy it, there is also layer that wrestles with serious emotions and the difficult issues that face countries like Thailand.

Hallinan is an author on my must read list and the Poke Rafferty series is one of my favorites.  This time it just took a while for my review to catch up with my readinhg.

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading this author or series, I highly recommend them.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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