*This book will be available July 17th. You may pre-order copies at your favorite online source.

THE FEAR ARTIST


By Timothy Hallinan

Soho Crime, July 2012 ($25.00)

ISBN-13: 978-1-61695-112-2

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel

Poor Poke Rafferty: talk about being in the wrong place at the very, very wrong time! He just wants to paint his apartment, Apricot Cream for the living area, Urban Decay for his pre-teen daughter Miaow's room. Leaving the paint store, he steps into the middle of a demonstration and is knocked to the ground by a bulky farang* who lands on top of him. Poke watches in horror as the paint cans spill their colors onto the Bangkok pavement, mixing with the monsoon rain and the blood pouring from the stranger's chest. He frantically seeks help as the man laboriously whispers three words into his ear, then goes silent. A meticulously dressed man in uniform — some branch of the Bangkok police force, Poke isn't sure which — arrives on the scene and takes charge, telling Poke the man was not shot and not to worry, he and his men will handle everything. Go home, nothing to see here.

If only it was that simple. Poke buys more paint and starts the task, missing his wife Rose and his beloved and bewildering Miaow, who has changed overnight from his sweet little girl to a snarling, sullen stranger. They've gone to the country to visit Rose's family, and that turns out to be a good thing.

His hope that the whole episode with the murdered farang will blow over is quickly shattered. The well-dressed cop, Major Shen, has him hauled in, demanding to know what the dying man said to him, but Poke truly can't remember. That doesn't stop the harassment, and soon he is on the run, not really understanding why. He does discover that a very unsavory character is on his case, an ugly redhead American named Murphy, perhaps Hallinan's nastiest villain yet. He learns who Murphy is by visiting the No Name Bar, where former spooks of all nationalities come together to talk about old times and relive past glories, while getting good and sloshed.

Poke, who has an uncanny ability to think on his feet, latches onto a slimy character named Vladimir, offering him and his pals greenbacks for information. They have it in spades. They tell him Murphy is the "fear artist," a Big Deal with the Phoenix Program back in the Viet Nam War. The CIA ran the counterintelligence program through people like him, men with no conscious who didn't mind a little, or a lot, of collateral damage as long as their aims were achieved. The U.S. government is reviving the program to deal with the Muslim unrest in southern Thailand, in a badly conceived plan to shut down another terrorist threat against it.

Poke calls in some favors from assorted friends and contacts. His best friend, policeman Arthit, tries to help, but he's still awash in grief at the death of his wife. A few days later, when a new woman enters his life, Poke is, at first, happy that his old friend is starting to live again, but he realizes he can't trust anyone, even those who should deserve his trust. He tries to hide in plain sight, darkening his skin and slicking down his Asian-black hair. He hops from one seedy hotel to another as he gathers information on why he's been made a target, spending his days riding around the city with a group of medical professionals who still make house calls.

He finds out who the dead American was, and what his dying words meant. Atrocities from Viet Nam come to light. Echoes of the past impact some vulnerable people in the present, and Poke must help them while he struggles to stay alive and protect his family. When his money runs low, he does something he hates to do: contacts his father, a former spy now under government protection, for help. The money arrives in the hands of his teenage half-sister, Ming Li, who refuses to let him send her home. She was well-trained in self-preservation by their father, and he needs her help when the going gets rough.

The rain falls as the tension builds, threatening to drown Poke both literally and figuratively. With some help from unlikely comrades in arms, he breaks into Murphy's home, where he encounters a terrifying damaged child. Her name is Treasure, and she breaks Poke's heart. She is Miaow's age, but her soul is that of an ancient and fragile monster, a monster who just wants to be a normal child. She is Murphy's Achilles Heel, a creature of his own making, yet still his beloved daughter. One almost feels sorry for Murphy, who is, after all, human. He is getting old, and tired, but he has responsibilities he won't abandon.

Poke's showdown with Murphy will take the reader's breath away. The harmless travel writer he was in his first outing has become a strong adversary, especially if one threatens harm to his little family. Well-done, Mr. Hallinan, this thriller, the fifth in the Poke Rafferty series, is the best yet.

*"Farang is a generic Thai word for someone of European ancestry..." — Wikipedia

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