Timothy Hallinan

Poke Rafferty - Travel Writer who moonlights as private detective, Bangkok

"The Fourth Watcher"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JUL 19, 2008)

“ ‘Nixon got a bum rap,’ Prettyman says, toying with an eighteen-inch-long tube of rolled paper on the table between them. He has eyes the color of faded denim, as remote as the eyes of a stuffed animal. Rafferty always half expects to see dust on them. His features have bunched for company in the center of his square face, below wavy, rapidly receding, light-colored hair he brushes unpersuasively forward. Lately he has cultivated a pointed little goatee apparently inspired by Ming the Merciless. Before he spouted the chin spinach, people occasionally told him he resembled the singer Phil Collins, but to Rafferty he’s always looked like what he is, or was: a spy. He spends way too much time staring people directly in the eyes when he’s talking, a trait Rafferty associates with Scientologists and liars, such as spies. He’s fairly sure Prettyman isn’t a Scientologist.”

Timothy Hallinan’s gripping new thriller, The Fourth Watcher is the second in the Bangkok series featuring travel writer Poke Rafferty, a middle-aged Californian who now lives in Thailand. When the novel begins, Rafferty is researching material for his next book, Living Wrong. He’s hired Author Interview!nine crooks who are teaching him “how to do something against the law,” and intending to compile his new skills, Rafferty anticipates writing a saleable book that will replenish his finances. Rafferty’s live-in girlfriend, former go-go dancer Rose, doesn’t approve of Rafferty’s latest project. As an ex-bar girl, she knows all about the bad behavior of tourists and she sees Rafferty’s book as pandering the worst aspects of tourism in Bangkok. Rose has left the bar scene behind, and with financial backing from Rafferty, she now has a stake in a cleaning business called Bangkok Domestics. Partnered with a woman named Peachy, Rose specializes in employing ex-go-go dancers, salvaging some of the aging women destined for the Love Star—one of the “grimmest of the bars that line the red light street Patpong.”

When the novel begins, Rafferty, Rose and Miaow, a street kid the couple have adopted are beginning to forge a life together, forming an ad-hoc family from the wreckage of their pasts. But while they can envisage a future together, trouble lies ahead when Rafferty’s estranged father inexplicably appears in Bangkok.

Hallinan constructs Rafferty’s life in Bangkok just enough detail, but the novel doesn’t get bogged down with descriptive passages. The first few chapters present the idealized future anticipated by Rafferty and his newly formed family. He’s decided to marry Rose, and Rose has finally accepted the idea that she can engage in a loving relationship, but there are outside forces at work seeking to destroy Rafferty and Rose’s happiness.

Bangkok is presented as an exotic, glittering world--a city of people washed up on its shores for a variety of reasons--and not all of those reasons are pleasant. Arnold Prettyman, for example a “former CIA agent who, like hundreds of other spooks orphaned by the thawing of the Cold War, rolled downhill into Bangkok.” Just as Rafferty begins to probe a world of illegality, he finds himself the target of muscle-bound assassins, a sinister Triad, counterfeiters, and an uptight Dudley-Do-Right U.S. Secret Service agent who has an expense account he’d rather not talk about.

Bangkok is a city that brings out the worst in people as they indulge their habits, their vanities and their predilections, but Hallinan avoids indulging in the lurid details of the city’s parasitic underbelly, and instead concentrates on a group of people who are trying to rise out of Bangkok’s exploitive sex industry networks. Rafferty attempts to extricate his family from a brutal sequence of revenge, and his attempts reveal that having powerful friends in high places helps, but it doesn’t solve the problem. Rafferty’s father, an old hand when it comes to corruption and power tells his son, “Take any country, Poke, and on top of the paper map you can put another map, a map of how the authority flows and where the obligations are, a map of hidden paths and corners. Blind alleys. The feng shui of power. The secret map, under the radar. One that nobody else has.”

The Fourth Watcher is an exciting, fast-paced read, but there’s more here under the surface than a well-written Bangkok thriller. Hallinan seems very comfortable with his protagonist, and the author’s writing style is--interestingly--relaxed, and this creates a contrast with the tension of the subject matter. The title refers to the beginning scene of the novel when Rafferty is followed by three people, but there’s a fourth watcher--a man Rafferty doesn’t spot, and while this fourth watcher is a very real person, he also symbolically represents the unexpected--the things you don’t plan for. The novel sets up Rafferty’s envisioned future and then this is ripped away in a "be-careful-what-you-wish-for” kind of way through fate and circumstance. Rose--a woman who’s seen and understands the worst aspects of human nature--realizes that it’s wise not to tempt fate, and so she sensibly disapproves of the subject matter for Living Wrong. The irony here is that in the beginning of the novel Rafferty pays people to teach him how to live outside of the law. But he soon finds himself on the run from a number of very real and powerful enemies—counterfeiters, international criminals and the U.S. government who all want Rafferty’s hide for a range of reasons.

  • Amazon readers rating: STARSfrom 40 reviews


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"Nail Through the Heart"

(Reviewed by Amanda Richards OCT 15, 2007)

Reading this book brought back memories of some lyrics from the “Chess” soundtrack:

One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster
The bars are temples but the pearls ain't free
You'll find a god in every golden cloister
A little flesh, a little history
I can feel an angel sliding up to me

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble
Not much between despair and ecstasy
One night in Bangkok and the tough guys tumble
Can't be too careful with your company
I can feel the devil walking next to me

These lyrics could have been written for this book, and if a movie deal is ever signed, I’m betting they include a version of the song.

Anyway, the story is about a travel writer named Poke Rafferty, who often moonlights as a detective.  Poke has friends in both high and low places, and through his research he knows the city and its people only too well.  To complete his dysfunctional life, Poke is trying to make himself a family unit out of an unrelated pair of females – Rose, a former exotic dancer from the wrong side of the bar, and Miaow, an eight year old orphan from the streets.

Things happen pretty quickly from here on in – Miaow finds and brings home a stray urchin with a bad attitude and worse history, then Poke takes on an assignment to locate a man who has gone missing, and next thing he knows, he’s getting paid big bucks to recover the property of a lady, who just happens to be an intimidating old broad with a sinister secret. At first these are separate cases, but the leads soon begin mixing and the evidence starts matching, and Poke learns that some things are better off buried. 

Alternating between dark moods and lurid descriptions, this book dives down to the depths of depravity  and man’s inhumanity to man, but the underlying story is that of a  good man who falls in love with a scarred city, for better or worse.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 73 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from A Nail Through the Heart at the author's website

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Poke Rafferty, Bangkok series:

Junior Bender, Burglar series:

Simeon Grist, Los Angeles series:


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Book Marks:


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About the Author:

Timothy HallinanTimothy Hallinan was born in 1942 in Los Angeles, California. Hallinan attended UCLA and the California State University system during the sixties. For awhile he lived in a shack with a woman in Echo Park while attending college. He became heavily involved with a class of poet-musicians in the all-night scene in places like the Troubadour. For a few months he even slept at the Troubadour, however, since it did not close until around three or four a.m., bedtime was around dawn. He graduated with degrees in English, including a master's degree from UCLA. Hallinan met his wife while attending UCLA. He was guest speaking in one of her classes. She too has a couple of master's degrees and currently does acupressure and Thai yoga massage.

As a principal in one of America's top television-based public-relations firms, he represented programs sponsored by many Fortune 500 companies and pioneered new methods of making television programming accessible to teachers. He also taught writing for many years. Now he writes full time.

Hallinan divides his time between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia, primarily Thailand, where he has lived off and on for more than twenty years.

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