Review: Here's what Timothy Hallinan's third Bangkok thriller, Breathing Water, isn't: it isn't a murder mystery (there is no murder to solve), it isn't a police procedural (no crime has been committed to investigate), it most definitely isn't a cozy (no cats or recipes to try at home). It is, however, an exceptionally compelling novel of a man caught up in a sequences of events that are spiraling out of control for everyone involved … with little chance that anyone can come out unscathed.
The man is journalist Poke Rafferty, who's participating in a staged poker game, though with real and unsuspecting players, at the request of his police buddies, which is being videotaped to teach casino owners how to spot cheaters. One of the players, however, takes exception when he apparently loses to Rafferty. He is Pan, the richest man in Thailand. He isn't pacified when he learns it was simply a training exercise, and challenges Rafferty to another game to save face. The stakes: if Pan wins, Rafferty must exit the country, leaving his wife and young daughter behind; if Pan loses, Rafferty gets to write a biography of Pan with Pan's full cooperation. The journalist in Rafferty understands that behind every great fortune is a great crime. Still, he really has no choice but to play.
Soon after winning the hand, Rafferty is threatened by two separate groups. One insists he not write the biography, the other insists he does. Both make it clear the consequences of his action — or inaction — are physical harm to him and his family. Rafferty's sure Pan is behind the "don't write" group, but Pan's sudden cooperation makes him doubtful. "I don't know what I think about him," Rafferty says at one point, "and a lot depends on who he really is." It seems inconceivable, but Rafferty suspects there might be a third, unknown, party involved. Soon it becomes obvious that Rafferty is in the middle of something much bigger than the stakes of a poker game, rather "a maze, an urban labyrinth with several ways in and probably only one safe way out."
The thrill in reading Breathing Water comes from the subtle, but relentless, escalation of tension in the story. A number of unexpected plot points, including Pan's apparent sudden change of heart with regard to the biography, keep the reader wary. There is also a separate subplot that is interweaved into the Rafferty / Pan storyline involving a woman and a child, and the street kids that were introduced in the first book of the series. Interesting and compelling in and of itself, the author does finally merge it into the main story as a way of getting the kids involved in Rafferty's scheme to salvage what he can of his situation; and while it's a welcome addition, it's not clear its inclusion is strictly necessary as it does tend to slow the pace at times. The poignant conclusion will no doubt bring a tear or two to one's eyes.
The title comes from a conversation Rafferty's police friend Arthit has with him. "Let me give you an image," Arthit says. "If it would clarify your situation to think about it visually, then imagine this: You're at the bottom of the Chao Phraya [River], wandering around on the riverbed without a map, and breathing water. You just haven't realized it yet." Breathing Water is really quite a remarkable and unusual novel and may be Hallinan's best to date.
Acknowledgment: Timothy Hallinan provided an ARC of Breathing Water for this review.
Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books — All Rights Reserved
Selected reviews of other mysteries by this author …
A Nail Through the Heart
William Morrow (Hardcover), June 2007
ISBN-13: 9780061255809; ISBN-10: 0061255807
The Queen of Patpong
William Morrow (Hardcover), September 2010
ISBN-13: 9780061672262; ISBN-10: 0061672262
Location(s) referenced in Breathing Water: Bangkok, Thailand
— ♦ —
Breathing Water by Timothy Hallinan — A Poke Rafferty Mystery
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication Date: August 2009
List Price: $24.99