Breathing Water: A Bangkok Thriller
by Timothy Hallinan
Review by Ernest Lilley
William Morrow Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780061672231
Date: 04 September 2009 List Price $24.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website / Interview: Tim Hallinan / YouTube Book Trailer / Show Official Info /
Breathing Water begins with a two tale stream, one where rich businessmen gamble away high stakes in back rooms and the other where the displaced poor do whatever they have to to survive. Before the novel is done, the two streams will join, and the river they form will run fast and dangerous.
In Timothy Hallinan's third Bangkok Thriller, Poke Rafferty, the ex-pat American travel writer who fell in love with Thailand and its people, finds himself playing a rigged high stakes poker game, but with a twist. It's really an police operation, not quite a sting, but more like a war game, to show a casino owner how its done. But it's a war game with live ammo, and one of the players that gets into the game is Khun Pan, a business man who came from peasant origins in the northwest of Thailand and rose to become powerful and wealthy, despite his younger days as a street enforcer, or perhaps because of them.
Poke has been writing about the seedier side of Bangkok for a while now, and when he butts heads with Pan during the game, he makes a wager he's going to regret. If he loses, he leaves Thailand, including his wife, a former go-go dancer with no passport, and his daughter, a girl they've taken in from the street. Poke love both as much as he loves this country he'll never quite understand, but as long as he has to gamble, he ups the ante. If he wins, he get's to write Pan's biography, and uncover whatever darkness in the man's past was used to lever him up from street thug to socialite.
The next morning, when it's been leaked to the press that a "farang" or foreigner, is going to do the biography of a man that peasants love, and politicians fear, Poke starts getting phone calls threatening his life, and that of his wife and daughter. If they were just trying to warn him off, that would be no problem, as Poke's brash, but not stupid. But the problem is that he's got conflicting death threats. If he writes it, they're all dead. If he doesn't write it, they're all dead. And Poke has no idea who the threats are coming from, at least not yet.
Poke's only hope is that he can uncover the truth behind Pan's rise to power and untangle the web around him before his family is killed. It's not much of a hope, but it's all he has, so he digs into his research with a will.
Meanwhile, Da, a peasant girl who's village was razed to build a golf course in the northeast, is working for another businessman on the streets of Bangkok, not as a prostitute, but as a beggar. To help her, they've given her an infant child to carry, which she's named Peep. Naming them isn't a good idea, she's told by another beggar girl, because the babies are only loaners until they're taken away to be sold.
Da come's to the attention of a street kid named Bo, who runs a gang of urchins working with crooked cops to set up pedophiles in back alleys. The evildoers get fleeced and told to leave the country, which passes for partial justice, and Bo and his troops get a cut. Not pretty, but it's survival. Bo's also the one who saved Poke's daughter from the street. One day, Bo approaches Da and tells her that when she's ready to escape, to turn her bowl over...and he'll be there.
Bo deserves a book all his own, and he's figured in the earlier novels by either his presence or absence. In this novel Bo and Poke have a chance to make peace with each other, and that's a good thing, because they both need friends right now. Another character worth more than a mention is Arhit, the policeman that Poke has been close friends with for years. Arhit's wife is dying of cancer, and he needs a friend now more than ever too, but taking help isn't in his nature. In fact, taking help isn't much in any of the main characters' natures, and they circle each other like sumo wrestlers, wary of too close an embrace.
The plot turns on issues of contemporary political reality, not just for Thailand, but all over the world. Democracies, even corrupt ones, are coming to terms with the peasant classes gaining a voice through elections, and putting up their own candidates for office. Economic destabilization is only the facade behind which political destabilization lurks, and the most powerful forces in the country are determined that they will not lose the control they've held for so long.
All Poke has to do is keep his family, and the people he cares about, alive... but that's no mean feat on the streets of Bangkok.
Breathing Water is as brilliant a piece of crime fiction as I've had the pleasure of reading, from the clean prose of the author to Poke Rafferty's noir humor, and the richness of the Thai landscape.