Today I welcome author and book reviewer Pat Browning to Cicero's Children. Pat's latest novel is ABSINTHE OF MALICE.
Here's how the book is described on Amazon:
'Old crimes come back to haunt a small California town in this intriguing urban cozy. ABSINTHE OF MALICE introduces Penny Mackenzie, Lifestyle reporter for The Pearl Outrider, and a cast of unforgettable characters who find their lives turned upside down when old secrets and new secrets all come to light after a chance discovery of a skeleton in a cotton field leads to murder...and romance.'
Pat has been reviewing books for several years and enjoys sharing those reviews with readers around the world. She has graciously consented to post several of her reviews here on Cicero's Children. This first review is of an upcoming title scheduled for release later this month.
THE FEAR ARTIST by Timothy Hallinan
Publication Date: July 17, 2012
Available for Pre-order
The setting is Bangkok during the worst monsoon season in 60 years. All Poke Rafferty plans to do is paint the apartment while his wife, Rose, and daughter, Miaow, are away visiting Rose’s family. But as he backs out of the paint store he’s hit from behind and knocked down by a mortally wounded man. The man gasps three words-- “Helen. Eckersley. Cheyenne .” He thrusts a laundry tag into Poke’s pocket and dies.
Thus purely by accident, Poke is caught in an assassination scenario against a backdrop of Washington D.C. 's fear that the Muslim uprising in Thailand could open a new Islamic terror front. Cops converge on the scene, whisk the dead man out of sight and haul Poke down to the station for interrogation. Who was the man? What did he say to Poke? Were they partners in some nefarious scheme?
Finally released, Poke goes to the Expat Bar to settle his nerves. When he gets home he’s ambushed by two men in uniform and hauled before an icy character named Major Shen. After a contentious grilling by Shen, Poke finds that his apartment has been searched. It’s the beginning of systematic harassment and surveillance.
Poke heads to the No Name Bar, where spooks gather, and latches onto Vladimir , a melancholy Russian who “looks the way a Gypsy violin sounds.” Vladimir and his tablemates sell information. They identify “the fear artist” as a killing machine named Murphy, a veteran of the Phoenix Program, a counterinsurgency program run by the CIA during the Vietnam War.
One of the things I've always liked about Timothy Hallinan's novels is that he gives his villains a trace of humanity. So it is with Murphy. He’s brutal beyond belief. His specialty is cutting; he’s an expert at long, very shallow cuts that reduce his victim to jelly. Ugly though he is, I feel a glimmer of sympathy for him. He’s getting older, he’s tired, and he wants out of the game. He could easily disappear into a simpler life, but he won’t abandon his daughter, Treasure, one of the oddest characters to show up in fiction.
A more sympathetic character is Arthit, Poke’s recently widowed cop friend. He advises Poke to stay under the radar and lead a normal life. In one of the funniest episodes in this otherwise grim situation, Poke hides in plain sight.
He takes advantage of his mother’s Asian genes to disguise himself as a Thai. He cuts his hair and borrows dark makeup from Miaow’s drama teacher. He enlists the help of a doctor friend who keeps uniformed doctors and nurses in moving cars at all times, switching back and forth to outsmart Bangkok’s traffic. Poke becomes “Just another dark-skinned guy idling along in the back of a car.”
Desperate for money but afraid to use banks or ATM machines, Poke gets word to his father, an old spook, that he needs help. The money is delivered by Ming Li, Poke’s teenaged half-sister. She’s ready for action and even Poke is impressed. Their father has trained her as an “asset,” and she turns out to be exactly that.
The murder of the man at the paint store has global implications, with Poke’s investigation uncovering gruesome details of events in Vietnam and the United States , always leading back to Asia . Just when I think Hallinan has taken the story as far as it can go, he slips in another sinister character and pulls it all together in a surprise ending.
The rain never stops throughout this novel. In a note from Hallinan, he says: “I tried throughout for a symbiotic relationship between the torrential rain and the rising flood waters, on one hand, and the shadowy, largely secret conflict on the other. They both kill a lot of innocent people, and with no intentional malice. Of course, the lack of malice is small comfort to the survivors of the dead.”
THE FEAR ARTIST is written in present tense, which I usually don’t like. In this case, however, it ramps up the suspense and I got into the rhythm of it with no problem. THE FEAR ARTIST will surely pick up some major awards when the 2013 award season rolls around.
Reviewed by Pat Browning, author of ABSINTHE OF MALICE