Patrick Briotte-Staff Writer
Fortune is something that can change at a the drop of a hat. There are cases when it can be to the benefit of the person it happens to, such as finding a dollar on the sidewalk or getting to work without hitting traffic. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, is when fortune can suddenly take a turn for the worst.This was the case for Phillip “Poke” Rafferty, a travel guide writer who lives in Bangkok in far off Thailand. “The Fear Artist” by Timothy Hallinan presents a thrilling story of intrigue and mystery, placing one man against the government when he stumbles across something he was never meant to see or hear. Rafferty collides with a large man on the sidewalk. The only thing the man can even say to Rafferty is three words: Helen. Eckersley. Cheyenne. In the space of a few heartbeats, the mysterious man has been shot to death. Arriving police officers firmly state the man had never been shot, which is an immediate cause of concern for Rafferty.
The situation gets worse when Thai secret agents approach the travel guide writer, demanding to know exactly what it was that the deceased man had said to him. Unable to remember what the man had even said to him, Rafferty is eventually released from interrogation only to find his apartment has been torn apart by an unknown visitor. This is the moment when he realizes that he is being carefully observed. These fears are cemented when Rafferty is visited by a group of uniformed men, narrowly managing to escape them. It becomes a race against the unknown as Rafferty must live as a fugitive from the law without any initial idea what the law has against him. Caught in the midst of the war on terror, Rafferty must find a way to survive against an unseen opponenty who wields fear with deadly precision.
One of the greatest strengths this story presents to readers is the breathtaking attention to detail which brings the city of Bangkok to life. Hallinan himself lives there part-time, and he spares no expense bringing the bustling streets to the reader in such a vivid manner you could almost blink and find yourself in Thailand. With the antagonist being an unseen force out to get Rafferty, we share his sense of uncertainty and mistrust in the world presented to us. Every person must be seen as a potential threat when dealing with spies and government agents out to cover something up.
More so than that is how unshakingly realistic the story can become. Completely unflinching looks at the darker side of humanity such as the abuse and exploting of women and children are placed in the spotlight, reminding the reader that the world can be a very cruel place. There is no holding back when it comes to addressing any of these issues. The people that would normally be categorized as the ‘good’ guys are not above committing questionable acts like the enemies they face, and the idea of past lessons becoming irrelevant also makes the reader sharply aware that people are not always able to be sorted into categories marked ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
Acting as a balance to these grittier elements of the story is a very prominent sense of dry humor mixed with cynicism. Just as people in the real world try to find things to stay positive about, the characters strike a good balance between seriousness and optimism depending on the situation at hand and how they are dealing with it. Each new element is introduced to the reader at the same time as Rafferty, meaning both are always on the same page in both the literal and figurative sense.
“The Fear Artist” by Timothy Hallinan presents readers with a well-paced espionage story with strong messages about questioning morality and finding new solutions to incredibly dire problems. A fair warning should be given that this book If readers are looking for a story that shows how there may be an entire world of corruption and intrigue playing out in the background of our own lives, as well as having the stomach for long and reflective looks into the elements of humanity that many are ashamed still exist, this is the perfect place to start.