“The Writer Should Be Invisible”

By Erica Ruth NeubauerJuly 25, 2014

TIMOTHY HALLINAN is a very busy man, currently writing two books a year. He says it “feels a lot like writing four books a year. It really scoops me out.”

His first series was published in the 1990s, lasted six books, and featured a quirky Los Angeles private investigator named Simeon Grist. Grist is relatively new to the PI business, having previously taught English at UCLA, but he knows the city inside and out. The books (recently re-released as ebooks) are funny, well paced, and demonstrate Hallinan’s gift for snappy dialogue.

Presently, Hallinan is writing two series: the Poke Rafferty thrillers, set in Bangkok, and the Junior Bender mysteries, back in the familiar territory of Los Angeles.

Poke Rafferty is a former travel writer who finds himself permanently relocated to Bangkok. He marries Rose, a woman from Bangkok’s notorious Patpong Road, where she once worked as a dancer — a past that brings trouble in at least one novel. As the series progresses, Poke and Rose also adopt an orphan named Miaow from the streets of the city, rounding out their cobbled-together family. The books are thrillers, as trouble always seems to find them, but also examine an unconventional family’s struggle to stay together and safe.

Junior Bender is a burglar who finds himself strong-armed by fellow criminals into doing private investigation work, since crooks can’t exactly go running to the cops with their troubles. In Crashed, the first book in the series, Junior is blackmailed into stopping acts of sabotage on the set of a mafia boss’s porn movie venture, while keeping the star sober — complicated by the fact that Junior doesn’t believe the former child star should be forced to make the movie. In Little Elvises, Junior is bullied into proving that a former music industry mogul isn’t guilty of murdering a nasty tabloid journalist. And in The Fame Thief, another scary mafia boss wants Junior to solve a crime that happened more than 70 years earlier. In the course of his investigations, Junior often must find a delicate balance between keeping his client happy and making the culprit very unhappy, all while protecting himself.


ERICA RUTH NEUBAUER: Herbie’s Game, the fourth Junior Bender book, is out now. Junior Bender is a somewhat unconventional protagonist. How would you introduce him?

TIMOTHY HALLINAN: Junior is a normal, everyday middle-class guy who happens to be a burglar, and a good one. He loves the work, but it’s cost him his marriage and endangered his relationship with his 13-year-old daughter, whom he loves to distraction. Oh, and he moonlights as a private eye for crooks. When someone commits a crime against a crook, the crook hires Junior. Surviving these experiences requires brains — which Junior has to spare — a nicely flexible moral code, and eyes in the back of his head.

This is a two-book year for you, with Herbie’s Game as well as a new Poke Rafferty thriller later this year. What do you think are the key differences between the two series?

The biggest difference is that the Poke Rafferty books are thrillers while the Juniors are mysteries. Obviously, the central question of a mystery is “Whodunnit?” while the central question of a thriller is, “How do you live through it?” In the Poke books, the reader meets the villain early and gets to know him or her pretty well. In the Juniors, practically everyone is a villain. Thus, in both of my series we meet the bad guy/girl early on and spend quality time with him or her. I obviously enjoy writing villains.

Another difference is that the Pokes are set in Bangkok, where I live part of each year, while the Juniors take place in the exotic, mystery-shrouded San Fernando Valley. Finally, Junior’s family is broken, while Poke’s is intact. The Rafferty books are as much about family as they are about crime: they focus on three very different people trying to create and preserve a perfectly ordinary family in the world capital of instant gratification.

What is your writing process like? Is it different for each series?

Yikes. As different as the two series are, I write them using the same identical process because it’s the only one I’ve got.

Many writers prefer the security of an outline, but since the only thing that really matters to me in a book is character, I can’t outline the story. For me, story is what characters do, and I don’t know what they’re going to do until they do it.

So, if you can actually call it a process, I essentially begin with what I hope is an interesting situation that relates somehow to my continuing characters, and then it’s as though I drop those characters, like a handful of ball bearings, onto the surface of my desk and watch them roll around. Because some of those ball bearings represent people who are in relationships of various kinds, groupings tend to form and re-form. As characters develop and new ones stroll in, they all get ideas of their own, and I almost always follow them. I’m occasionally praised for my plotting skills, but the fact is that I have no idea what the plot will actually be until the characters take me there.

What do you like about writing the Junior Bender series?

Actually, all of it. I laugh out loud all the time when I write Junior. It’s such a liberating experience, writing first-person narrative by someone with a really, really skewed perspective. One of the frustrations of writing in the third person is that you either have to assign all the good jokes to the characters or just sit on them, because a joke in third person is distracting — the reader, even if he or she laughs, will think, “Who said that?” and bang, the writer becomes part of the equation. The writing I admire most functions like a clear window through which the reader sees the characters in action. The relationship is between the reader and the characters, and the writer should be invisible.

In previous novels Junior was more or less strong-armed into conducting investigations. In Herbie’s Game, the case is intensely personal for him. Do you think this changes the tone of the book?

Absolutely. For some reason, in the fourth book of every series I write I feel compelled to take the reader back into a primary character’s early history. In The Queen of Patpong, the fourth Rafferty book, the reader went back to a small village in northeast Thailand to see how a tall, gawky, painfully shy teenager named Kwan (which means “spirit”) became Rose, the bar worker who is the “queen” of the notorious Patpong Road when Rafferty meets her.

Up until now, Junior’s cases have been imposed on him, and that’s how this one begins, too. But it turns personal in stages: First, when he finds Herbie Mott — his mentor as a burglar and the nearest thing he had to a father — murdered. Then, as he investigates the death and Junior learns that Herbie may not have been the man Junior thought he was, but someone far darker and more complicated. By the midpoint of the book, Junior has gone from being a relatively happy man to one who wonders what happened to his life: who Herbie really was and how much he may have lost by deciding to play Herbie’s game. All the books have been dark in the sense that the crimes are real and often brutal, but in Herbie’s Game Junior’s inner life turns dark, and that affects his narrative and darkens almost everything in the book.

Which is still funny, by the way!

Do you feel that the personal nature of the case changes how Junior handles himself?

I hope so. I think the book is trying to make two points. The first is that we never, ever actually know who someone is, not completely. At some point in most relationships, as a cop named Paulie DiGaudio tells Junior,

You see the bits and pieces they want to show you, and at a certain point you go, Well, fine, that’s Herbie or whatever the name is, and you put that version […] into a package and you seal it, like a loaf of bread, and you put it in the fridge. And from then on […] you don’t see Herbie, what you see is whatever you wrote on that package: Sourdough Rye or Sweet Potato Raisin or whatever. What you see is just the guy you knew he’d be.

The second point I hoped the book would make is that we’re all responsible for the lives we create. We can point a finger at the monsters or angels who twisted or rescued us, but in the end we’re in charge. Discovering that is what I think growing up is all about, and Junior is forced to confront the fact that he skipped that part of growing up.

Do you see Junior attempting to style himself as a private investigator in a more formal manner at some point?

Not if I have anything to do with it. One thing I love about writing these books is that Junior doesn’t want to take these cases on. If he gets close to solving the crime, there’s a chance the guilty party will kill him, and if he fails to solve the crime, there’s a chance that his client will kill him. One aspect of all the books — in addition to the mystery and the personal stories — is the high-wire act Junior has to perform to stay alive.

What books have you been reading lately? Are you able to read while you are writing?

I read all the time: writing, not writing, sick or well.

Lately I’ve been reading mainly lit fic and nonfiction about Broadway musicals. I just discovered J. G. Farrell, an English writer who was unfortunately killed at the age of 44 and who wrote a masterpiece trilogy about the decline of the British Empire, Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur, and The Singapore Grip. Just masterful work. And an American writer named John Williams, especially Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing. I can’t believe I hadn’t read either of these writers.

I read about musicals because I’m fascinated by the creative process and ANY musical is an all-out war between people who are enormously creative and, once in a while, someone who is much less so. Everything Was Possible, Ted Chapin’s journal of the creation of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, is a model of this kind of book, but equally fascinating are the mammoth biographies of Bob Fosse and Jerome Robbins that came out in the past couple of years.

And finally, beyond this year’s two novels, what projects are you looking at next?

I’ve almost finished the first draft of the seventh Poke, The Hot Countries, and am up to my elbows in the fifth Junior, King Maybe. And I want to write a couple of stand-alones, both of which I have pages and pages of notes about. But you know, two books a year is not a hobby. It uses a lot of energy.


Erica Ruth Neubauer is a contributing editor to Crimespree Magazine.

LARB Contributor

Erica Ruth Neubauer has reviewed for Publishers Weekly, Mystery Scene Magazine, and others. She is the author of the Jane Wunderly mystery series — the first, Murder at the Mena House, will be released in spring of 2020 from Kensington. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her family.


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