Reviewed by Christopher G. Moore
Ever since Paul Theroux’s classic Saint Jack, with its Singapore, appeared in 1972, and Jack Flower uttered the famous line that “it is kinda hot,” the idea of the oppressive heat and steamy nights in the tropics has become the weather report in contemporary novels set in Southeast Asia. The heat drives people mad; it makes them careless, languid, and bleeds them of energy. The personal cost to live an expat life in Southeast Asia has been a theme for a couple of decades in Thailand.
Bangkok is an idea with multiple landscapes, some of them imagined, some real, and more than a few caught in the no man’s land between the two. The expat territory is as varied as Thailand itself with features running from valleys, rivers, mountains, field, pastures, scrubland, and beaches. There is no representative expat. Nor could there be with people from China, Canada, Norway, England, America, Nigeria, Burma, Cambodia, India, Denmark to mention just a few of expats that form enclaves in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand. No one will ever write the definitive expat novel. One would need to switch to writing an ethnographic encyclopedia. Such a book would have a dozen readers.
In Tim Hallinan’s The Hot Countries, he does what the rest of us who write novels about expats in the tropics do: we show up at the mine face where these expats live, work, play and die, looking for the rare nuggets buried inside. Hallinan’s series, set in Bangkok featuring Poke Rafferty, has produced an extraordinary cast of American expats whose lives intersect at the Expat Bar. Rafferty and his fellow expats carry a heavy Cold Countries cultural cargo strapped to their souls. Hallinan focuses his novelist’s eye on the busy intersection where Hot Countries and Cold Countries cultures collide in Bangkok, where everyone is running the red light and driving on the pavements. The readers in the front row seat watch the ice melt as they adapt to Thai life.
Poke Rafferty, an American from Lancaster, California, has settled into expat life as a travel journalist. He’s an old Asia Hand and he and his gang remember the life of expats when Bernard Trink wrote his weekly column for the Bangkok Post. While Bangkok has moved on, Poke Rafferty and his friends continue to live on the margin. Poke showcases the low-budget expat life weighed down by demands of an ex-bargirl wife named Rose and an adopted daughter name Miaow (the Thai nickname for ‘Cat’). Miaow, a street kid, carries the damage of abandonment. Seven years earlier Poke Rafferty adopted her. Poke’s world revolves his family and his friends. Within this circle, Hallinan excels at allowing a free-flow of ideas between his characters, which ably colour their emotions, foreshadow their motives, and limen their beliefs.
His friends have secrets and painful pasts. Some like Wallace are haunted by their experience during the Vietnam War. Wallace’s Vietnam experience, along with others he served with, figure into the mystery. The 1960s in Bangkok and, in particular, the Golden Mile, the hedonistic playground, where young American GIs left the jungles of the Vietnam war for R&R, are stylishly imagined and with a genuine feeling for the era.
The Hot Countries takes time to establish the networked interaction inside the family members and friends, showing their weaknesses, loyalties, foibles, egos, doubts, and defenses. Poke’s wife for seven years, is three-months pregnant, but refuses to have an ultra-sound to confirm whether she’s carrying twins. Their 14-year-old adopted daughter, who’d been abandoned by her parents, is addicted to British TV (particularly period dramas), books and celebrities. This isn’t a conventional mystery. Instead of a series of actions and clues, Hallinan allows the reader time to explore and understand the full range of cultural difference that caused difficulties for his characters. Poke’s friendship with Thai cop Arthit (and his family) brings to the story the Thai threads to the mysterious game of power, culture and thinking.
The centrifugal forces start to spin inside Rafferty’s world, gathering warp speed with Arthur Varney unexpected arrival. By this time, we know what is at stake for the characters and the limits of their life. The mystery and thriller elements take over and push against the walls of those limits. The heart of the mysterious Arthur Varney, his connection to Rafferty, a young luk-krueng Thai girl named Treasure and Treasure’s dead father. Varney shows up at the Expat Bar and hands Poke Rafferty a number he written down: 3,840,00.00. It was the US dollar amount that had disappeared from Haskell Murphy’s house the night Poke killed Murphy and the house was destroyed in a massive explosion. Poke managed to pull one case containing $640,000 and has hidden it in his Bangkok apartment under the floor. The rest of the loot has, we presume, gone up in smoke. But Varney, by his very presence, suggests he believes Rafferty has the whole amount and he’s come to Bangkok to get that money. And for his partner in crime’s daughter, Treasure.
Treasure’s father was killed by Rafferty. He was a hardcore, dangerous criminal. He dragged his daughter through Southeast Asia. Treasure was at the scene the night that Poke killed her father. She approved, thinking he’d done her a favor. Rafferty secured a safe place in a shelter for Treasure, and is waiting for her to become older before handing over the money he took that night from her blazing house. Varney scares Treasure, causing her to panic. She presumes that he’s come not only for the money but for her, and she carries the memory of her father warning that if anything happened to him, Varney would own her. Like Miaow, Treasure is psychologically damaged, and we learn a about expat life as Poke balances his role as her self-appointed guardian and his family.
Rafferty makes it his mission to find Varney in Patpong and resolve their outstanding issues one way or another. And Varney is seeking to get Rafferty’s attention, including murdering a street kid. As in all good mysteries, who you are looking for and what you find are often two different things. And the person you start out chasing after, you end up taking steps to avoid him finding you and your family. Rafferty’s life and times show the melting point when the Hot Country and Cold Country make him shiver and sweat at the same time. That may indeed be the expat’s fate. He loses his ability to know how to culturally dress for the bad weather blowing his direction.
The Hot Countries is an absorbing and rewarding look at life in a hot country expat sub-culture. Poke Rafferty’s humanity, commitment and ingenuity are rare qualities and they allow him to adapt and survive in his life as an expat. Any reader can forgive the odd slip or mistake in the narrative flow when he or she is in the hands of a talented author like Hallinan. All of us (including myself) who write about Thailand, make them. It is what makes books and us human.
The characters in The Hot Countries are finely detailed along with their vulnerabilities, tragic flaws, and mutual dependence. Hallinan takes us inside their dreams, nightmares, fears, and hopes, making them larger than fiction. They are characters that will stay with you. Hallinan knows how to bring memorable fictional characters to life. His characters cling onto the edge of a bleak, hardscrabble expat group as if they’d been tossed from a life raft into the jaws of raging rapids. Poke Rafferty is the one person they trust to conjure up the life vests and guide them safely to shore. The Hot Countries hurls you down those rapid and when you emerge at the end, you will know that you’ve been on a grand adventure with characters you care about.