A couple of years ago, a talented, but still struggling crime writer lamented that all of the media attention went to writers who didn’t need it. It’s true if only because many of them are dead. Yet J.D. Salinger continues to be a hot item. For living writers, however, there’s something else at work — the “bandwagon effect.”
Quite a few years ago, I attended a mystery conference where Elmore Leonard spoke about what he called “The New York Times Best Sellers Club.” He spoke as if he were letting his audience of a couple hundred writers and hundreds more devoted crime fiction fans in on a big trade secret. If you make the list, he suggested, it’s hard to get off it. What the club seems to create is a kind of perpetual promo machine. The writer sells lots of books and makes the list and because the writer is on the list he or she sells lots of books and is on the list again and ever shall be, kudos without end.
I think that’s also true — seems so, anyway — though I certainly don’t know from personal experience. I believe there are two other factors as well. One is that some writers are just that good. It might also be that the gifted writer creates people and or places you wish to visit again and again. Cara Black invites us to Paris. Who doesn’t want to go to Paris? Louise Penny has created an entire village full of people readers care about. What’s happened since we last looked in on them? What’s going on with that woman who reminds me of Aunt Ida?
I’m not sure if Timothy Hallinan has made the Best Sellers Club yet; but he’s far from suffering anonymity. He doesn’t need me to promote his work. Yet, he makes my point. He is a writer of a couple of increasingly popular series. Of those, I’m a member of the “Poke” Rafferty series cult. I return because of his characters, and because he spins compelling tales. The truth is, though, I return mostly because of Bangkok. Here is an excerpt from Hallinan’s most recent Bangkok book, The Fear Artist.
As he hits the street and opens Rose’s umbrella, he feels a bit of the old tingle, the little carbonated fizz of anticipation he’d felt all those years ago. When he first arrived. When Bangkok was just one jaw-dropper after another. When he spoke none of the language, when he might as well have been blind for all the sense the signs meant to him. When he felt the odds were fifty-fifty each time he went down a new street that it would be dedicated to holiness — temple carvers, amulet makers, gold-leaf hammerers — or hedonism — bars restaurants, flamboyant neon signifying the fall-off edge of his middle-class map of life Whether the people on the sidewalks would be housewives toting plastic bags or children playing tag, or transsexual hookers gossiping as they waited for dark. When it felt like the whole city changed every time he went out as though they knocked it down behind him and built it up in front of him.
This is exactly the Bangkok I felt on my brief stay there. This is the city that seduced me, that I’m homesick for, even though it has never been my home. His Bangkok is one of the reasons his books resonate with me. His books take me back to one of my most favorite paces at a time when I no longer travel.
In this fifth “Poke” novel, Hallinan sets things in motion quicker than the corps of muscular, sweaty young men can set up Patpong’s night market.
Out of the blue a man is shot on the street. He falls dead against Poke, whispering something nearly incoherent in his last breath. Those last words, in a world of terrorist-induced fear and corresponding suspicion, do not go unnoticed. It is not far-fetched. It could happen to you.
Suppose a high-level international terrorist misdials and gets your cell. You answer. Perhaps the caller utters a few unrecognizable words before he disconnects. Then the NSA and the full force of our country’s perhaps understandable paranoia comes crashing down on YOU. The Fear Artist mirrors this mood of the 20-teens. We all feel it. Marathon race bombings, massive electronic eavesdropping, drone assassinations, torture, official kidnapping and what is euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition” to secret chambers in foreign lands not bound by U.S. laws.
Poke feels it.