A Nail Through the Heart by Timothy Hallinan

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In discussing A Nail Through the Heart by Timothy Hallinan I want to use a sort of Complete Review format as I have in the past. With quotes from other reviews followed by my own take on the book.

Let’s start with Kirkus Reviews as they offer a quick plot summary as part of their short review:

Mystery writer Hallinan scores big-time with a fast-moving thriller set in Thailand.

Poke Rafferty, the improbable product of a Filipino-Irish union, writes articles and niche travel books that provide him enough to live, if not well, at least better than the average Joe in Bangkok. The American expat wants to marry bar-girl-turned-businesswoman Rose, and he wants to adopt Miaow, the eight-year-old urchin he’s rescued from the streets. Then Poke’s old friend, a police officer named Arthit, sends him a young woman searching for her recently disappeared uncle. As Poke digs deeper into the uncle’s past, he finds evil that strikes a bit too close for comfort. Matters get even more complicated when he crosses paths with Madame Wing, a terrifying old woman who hires Poke to investigate a theft that has left at least one man dead, and with Miaow’s friend Superman, a scary street kid. They’re only two of the vibrant, deftly drawn characters who throng Hallinan’s exotic but believable landscape. His hero has both a gun and a conscience, as well as enough wit to do the math and come up with the right answer. Poke struggles with age-old questions of right and wrong in a very personal way as the well-crafted narrative moves quickly and convincingly toward a satisfying conclusion that almost guarantees a sequel.

Dark, often funny and ultimately enthralling.

Chris McCann’s Pop Matters review is the best among the online reviews I have seen. He doesn’t bury the lead but gives you his interesting perspective on book in the first paragraph:

Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart features rough-and-tumble Bangkok street kids, former Khmer Rouge sadists, pasty pederasts, and a not-so-typical American-Thai romance. What elevates it above other strictly genre thrillers is its stubborn focus on family and how the links between people, burdened with complexity and pain, ultimately give meaning to otherwise chaotic, meaningless, and violent lives. In this regard, A Nail Through the Heart can be read as an anti-noir, eschewing the taciturn, solitary detective for a man whose only desire is to connect.

McCann also focuses on what differentiates the book from other thrillers:

Hallinan differentiates A Nail Through the Heart from other rote thrillers set in exotic locales with the tenderness it has at its heart. Where authors of most genre work would trip over themselves in an attempt to humanize the story, Hallinan seems to sincerely care about his characters; even transient actors receive a moment or two of his full consideration.

The intricate pattern of the web that ties everyone together—not in a Sam Spade whodunit sort of way, but in a Buddhist we’re all part of the same living universe” way—emerges as the true theme of the work. The Buddhist characters of Hallinan’s Bangkok practice daily acts of devotion, which in the hands of a less confident or overly ambitious writer could easily seem too fraught with symbolism. Instead, talk of ghosts, spirits, and offerings grounds the characters in the literary city that’s half reality and half dream.


As I mentioned yesterday, Bruce Grossman posted a review at Bookgasm. Grossman focuses, in part, on the dark side of the book:

Hallinan has crafted such a dicey situation for Poke that if you were in his position, you wouldn’t know what to do. It’s an unflinching look at a part of the world peppered with lowlifes who will exploit anyone to their advantage. Not some fun-in-the-sun read, NAIL deals with dark issues and makes you grateful for what you have. It’s a page-turner, alright, but into the darkest of hearts, with one man who makes it his mission to straighten out some of the problems, even knowing full well he can never make it perfect.

This is well worth the read, even though you will feel like you need a wire brush to scrub some of it off of you. Some of its characters make the pedophiles on DATELINE’s “To Catch a Predator” segment look like Mister Rogers.

Over at Pop Syndicate, however, Stefan feels that Hallinan handles this aspect well:

Timothy Hallinan takes on some very heavy subject matter in A Nail Through the Heart. Few authors could combine sadistic child abuse, police corruption, homeless children and former leaders of the Khmer Rouge in such a way that makes it not only riveting but doesn’t focus solely on the exploitation aspects. Each disturbing idea and situation (of which there are many) is handled perfectly. You’ll be disturbed, outraged and disgusted but never in a way that feels cheap or vulgar.

He also enjoyed the way the book offered a fictional tour of Thailand:

Hallinan gets down on the street level and takes you into the back streets and bars of the area. He takes the time to explain how hard it is for a woman to do something other than prostitution and how strong family is to the people of Thailand. The city and people are part of the story instead of just a setting.

My Take
All of the above reviews touch on important aspects of the book’s strengths. The narrative is well crafted and moves at a nice pace. The plot gets more complicated as the various threads lead Poke deeper into the dark underbelly of Thailand, but Hallinan doesn’t sacrifice character development either. The characters are multidimensional and believable – not something you always get in a thriller.

And the setting is a character too and a well developed one. Poke interacts and wrestles with the history and culture of his adopted home. An important part of the book’s tension comes from the fact that he is seeking to build a life in this place but he will never be fully integrated into the society that surrounds him.

As noted, many of the subjects touched upon are dark and ugly but they don’t feel gratuitous or over-the-top. One of the themes, IMHO, is that people – and life – are complex and not easily pigeonholed. Poke’s girlfriend makes this point on a number of occasions from her unique Buddhist perspective. Hallinan has no problem labeling evil as evil but neither does he shrink from exploring the vulnerable who get caught up in evil rather than choose it.

If there is a weakness to the book I felt it centered on Poke’s moral core. It was never clear to me exactly why Poke was so in love with Rose, or Rose as opposed to the other Thai girls he intereacted with, or why he so passionately wants to adopt Miaow. Hallinan does an excellent job of communicating Poke’s emotions as the events unfold but it is less clear why he started down this path to begin with.

Poke doesn’t seem to have any clear core moral beliefs. He is, at times, comfortable breaking the law, and allowing others to do so, and seems to make these decisions based on some sort of internal sense of justice. This makes for some interesting ethical dilemmas, and forces the reader to contemplate what they might do in similar circumstances, but it left me wondering what formed Poke’s moral core; what really drives him?

Clearly the love and meaning that being part of a family involves motivates him to hold those he loves close to him and to formalize the structure as a sign of his commitment. His commitment to Rose and Miaow, and his hope of building a family with them, clearly drives him to do whatever it takes to secure the future. But how or why he came to that conclusion is a little less clear.

This minor wrinkle aside, however, A Nail Through the Heart is a captivating and emotional novel. It is both an exciting expatriate detective novel and an exploration of the power of love and family in the midst of darkness and chaos. I look forward to getting to know Poke Rafferty better as the series continues.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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2 Comments

  • Thank you for such a thoughtful analysis. I know there are infinitely easier ways to review a book, and I deeply appreciate the time and consideration you put into this. And thanks also for both the questions you raised and the kind words.

    Tim Hallinan

  • Thank you for such a thoughtful analysis. I know there are infinitely easier ways to review a book, and I deeply appreciate the time and consideration you put into this. And thanks also for both the questions you raised and the kind words.

    Tim Hallinan

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