Timothy Hallinan is probably best known for his series with Poke Rafferty, a travel writer caught up in Bangkok’s intrigue. He now has a new series featuring Junior Bender, a burglar who becomes an ad-hock private eye for his fellow criminals. It finds that line where Donald Westlake meets with his alter ego, Richard Stark. The first Junior Bender novel, Crashed, is just out, with the next one, Little Elvises, out in January. Tim found time to talk to us about Junior while working on his latest Raffery novel set in Bangok.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: Junior Bender is an interesting character. He has too many morals to be a criminal with no hassles, but not enough to be an honest citizen. How did he come about?
TIMOTHY HALLINAN: The thing I like best about Junior is that he’s essentially a middle-class guy, unhappily divorced, in love with his daughter, who’s conventional in almost every sense of the word except that he’s a crook. I don’t think there’s necessarily a huge moral divide between those who live normal middle-class lives—with all the compromises on values and deals with the devil those lives require—and those whose profession centers on nonviolent crime. From his own perspective, Junior is one of those people who was lucky enough to discover his talent early in life. It just happened to be burglary.
Of course, that means he’s had to invent his own moral code, idiosyncratic though it is, and I’d say he sticks to it about as often as most people do. One of the wonderful things about crooks is that they don’t necessarily have to go from A to C via B. They can walk through the walls that most of us think we need to go around. But only some walls; for those who aren’t sociopaths there are walls they’d never dream of walking through.
The way he came about was that I heard a voice, when I was in the middle of writing a Poke Rafferty book, and it just wouldn’t leave me alone. Eventually I sat down and wrote what it wanted to tell me, which proved to be a short story about a crook and his hamster. When the hamster is stolen, the crook—who turned out to be Louie the Lost, a former getaway driver with no sense of direction—went to a friend to solve the mystery, and the friend was Junior Bender. As soon as I finished the Poke book, which was Breathing Water, I sat down and wrote Crashed in about six weeks, which for me is the speed of light.
MP: What makes him a character worth revisiting in a series for you?
TH: As any thriller writer will tell you, crooks are often the characters who are the most fun to write. They have a different kind of energy. They’re unpredictable. And here I am with a whole cast of crooks, many of them doing crooked things to each other. It’s paradise.
And then, Junior is always in danger. As he says in the third book, The Fame Thief, every time he takes a case, he almost gets killed. If he gets close to solving the mystery, the culprit will want to kill him. If he doesn’t, his client might kill him. I mean, peril is just built into his situation. We crime writers spend so much time and energy ramping up the peril in our books, and here it’s build in; it’s practically default mode.
Finally, the books are just effortlessly funny, to me, anyway. I laugh myself stupid writing them.
MP: Do you find anything more challenging about writing a criminal hero?
TH: It sort of worries me that I don’t. I make up all that inside stuff about how burglars and con artists work, and I’ve gotten mail from a couple of cops asking where I got the information. (I got one email specifically about the way Junior uses a refrigerator box in the burglary that opens Crashed.) So I get to indulge my criminal imagination and also work out a lifetime of malice toward bad motels. Only a crook would live as Junior does, a different motel every month, and just thinking up the motel for each book is enough to get me going. So far he’s been in the Snor-Mor, Marge ‘n Ed’s North Pole, and Valentine Shmalentine, the world’s only kosher love motel. He’s going to be in a real dilly for number four, King Maybe.
But, of course, part of what engages me about Junior are the non-criminal aspects of his life, especially his relationship with his daughter, Rina, and his ex-wife, Kathy. He’s lost his family because he won’t change his way of life, and that’s his greatest single regret.
MP: In the book, Junior becomes involved with a troubled former child star. Is she based on anyone in particular?
TH: God, there have been dozens of them. I don’t know how they get life insurance. She’s based mostly on—and this is going by appearances only, because I have no reason to believe they ever doped, and they certainly haven’t gone broke—the Olson Twins. There was a period after they first moved to New York when they looked like the after poster for heroin. As I said, for the benefit of all the lawyers out there, I don’t attribute Thistle’s behavior to them, but a photo I saw of one of them was the image I had in my mind when I wrote her. If the plans to film the book go through, I’d love to see either or both of them play her. Can’t think of anyone who’d be better, what with their having a combined weight of 97 pounds.
MP: Crushed has a Hollywood backdrop and Junior comes off as a film buff. Are you as influenced by film as novels?
TH: In the sense that I try to write visually, I suppose. But I actually see very few films and almost zero TV, and what I do see comes from Netflix or through streaming, so I can hardly claim to be a film buff. But I read about practically everything, and I probably actually spend more time reading about movies than I do watching them. All that stuff Junior said about Asian horror movies with dead wet girls came out of a couple of books I read a few years back. A lot of the visual component of my books comes from something my agent wrote in the margin of a very long scene that was almost entirely dialogue between two characters. He wrote, What are we looking at? It struck me then as a profound question, and it still does.
I was in various aspects of L.A. show business for a long time, and I think that’ll be an element in all the Juniors. Wait till you read Little Elvises and The Fame Thief.
MP: Both Junior and Poke Rafferty are both outsiders and they rely on outsiders in all kinds of ways. What draws you to that type of character?
TH: I think thriller heroes are traditionally outsiders. The private eye, almost by definition, is someone with no personal connection to the people in the mystery he/she is investigating. And the Lone Hero, as epitomized in films like “Shane” and books like Lee Child’s derives much of his’her power from the fact that people don’t know what his or her skills are. I’d actually disagree with you about Poke, at least in the books in which the family is to some extent involved in the events—the one I’m writing right now, For the Dead, for example. In those books, both his strengths and his weaknesses come from his attachment, from the love he feels for Rose and Miaow. He’s an outsider in the Thai culture, but I see that as a weakness, too; it can kill him if he doesn’t figure it out. If he is an outsider, he’s trying not to be. He wrote his travel books, which were superficial and smart-ass, as though the cultures he was describing were on the other side of a thick plate of glass, like a department-store window. In Thailand—for the first time—he’s trying to find his way through the glass, for his marriage, for his family, and occasionally for his survival.
MP: You now have two running characters. Any advice to authors thinking about starting a series?
TH: Sure, but no one will follow it. Write the second book before you try to sell the first. When I wrote my first series, the Simeon Grist books, I sold the first one I wrote; about two weeks after I finished it, I had a three-book contract with a major publishing house. And for the next five books I chafed against stupid decisions I’d made in the first one, mainly decisions about Simeon and his relationships. When I thought of Poke, I wrote a 100,000-word Poke Rafferty book, Bangkok Tango, before I even began the first one I submitted, A Nail Through the Heart. I learned an enormous amount about Poke and his world, even if Bangkok Tango never saw the light of day.
My advice to any writer of any kind is simply to try in every book to do at least one thing you don’t know how to do. Otherwise, I don’t know how we grow. To me, writing is a life, not a job, and the one and only objective is to get better.
Chris F. Holm caught the attention of MysteryPeople with the first two book in his Collector series, Dead Harvest and The Wrong Goodbye, about a man doomed to collect souls for the underworld. Urban fantasies that lean heavy toward the hard boiled, Holm shows a great talent for taking over the top, pulp story archetypes and making them human.
Recently, he posted five novels that influenced the series over at Nocturnal Books. Hammet, Chandler, Lovecraft; we enjoyed this list.
Rick Gavin’s debut, Ranchero, was a fun, rollicking crime adventure with Nick Reid and his buddy Desmond, out to find a car stolen from Nick. His latest, Beluga, finds the pair up to their necks in trouble in the stolen tire business down in Mississippi. Rick was kind enough to let us talk about the area he writes in and the resturaunt chain that plays an important role.
MYSTERYPEOPLE: What makes the Delta so different?
RICK GAVIN: The Delta is different from much of the south because it’s not homogenous. People were imported from all over the world to work in the fields, so the Delta is weirdly cosmopolitan. Very few white people, and lots of everybody else. I happen to like that.
MP: How does it inform your heroes, Nick and Desmond?
RG: Nick’s from the Mid Atlantic, so the Delta is alien territory to him. He’s learning the ropes from Desmond, who is Nick’s authority and tour guide. It’s big territory — around 7 thousand square miles — and Nick and Desmond have to ride all over the place to get anything done. So they see everything, go everywhere. The Delta is their constant backdrop, and they’re the sorts to pay attention.
MP: Even the criminals seem different. How would Delta gangsters stack up against the New York mob?
RG: Delta criminals have no code, and they’re endlessly conniving. I don’t think mobsters would have a chance against them. But no Delta lowlife dresses well enough to get in The Palm.
MP: What’s the best thing about the place?
RG: The best thing about the Delta is the sky. Very big. Beautiful at night. The worst thing is the smell. Fertilizer squared.
MP: Both books are very funny. Is the area prone to humor?
RG: I don’t find the Delta prone to humor. I am. The tone of these books is about the only thing I can manage.
MP: Explain the importance of Sonics in the Delta.
I’ve never actually ever eaten at a Sonic, but I sure see them everywhere. Every little town has one, and it’s that kind of food that fuels the Delta. You look in vain for anything better.
This has been one of the best years ever in crime fiction. Doing a top ten list at the end of the year was impossible. To get around this, I decided to do a couple categories before getting around to the top ten to include as much as I could. We start with novels in my adopted home state of Texas. This year proved that we still hold a great tradition of contributing a unique touch to the genre, covering the state’s past, present, and future.
1. The Edge Of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale
This is one of the books Lansdale was born to write. A Depression era teen, her two friends, and laudanum-addicted mother take a raft trip down the Sabine with a dead friend’s ashes and some stolen money that put some shady men on their trail. This book has everything we love about Lansdale, his dark, offbeat humor, wonderful dialogue, a meeting of the realistic and the surreal, and that unique style that is all his own.
2. The Devil’s Odds by Milton T. Burton
Published posthumously, this tale of cowboys and gangsters set during World War II pits an affable Texas Ranger against the New Orleans Mafia and the infamous Maceo Brothers of Galveston when he helps a not-so-innocent damsel in distress. A fun, rollicking, two-fisted look at an interesting time in and place in our history
3. Burrows by Reavis Wortham
This follow up to Wortham’s The Rock Hole brings back his cast of North Texas characters for one of the most cringe-worthy books of the year. The three generations of lawmen are on the the trail of some thrill killers. When they reach the suspects’ home and learn they’re hoarders, constable Cody Parker has to use his skills and face the trauma from being a tunnel rat in Vietnam to crawl through the booby trapped residence. It’s a mix of thriller and regional novel with a western showdown for a climax. It also serves as a look at the Sixties in small town America.
4. Death Makes The Cut by Janice Hamrick
Austin high school teacher Jocelyn Shore starts the semester with murder when the tennis coach is found dead. Hamrick uses school politics and teacher cliques that rival the students’ to create a very human and suspenseful traditional mystery.
5. Resurrection Express by Stephen Romano
Romano takes the nihilistic tone of noir and heads light speed toward the apocalyptic in this near future story of a high tech heistman and his strong arm father who go up against his nemesis to get his presumed dead wife back. Picture a Richard Stark Parker novel with a sci-fi touch and epic tone.