Monday, September 21, 2009


By Tim Hallinan, critically-acclaimed thriller author of BREATHING WATER.

I fell under the spell of my first influence when I was five years old and living in Washington, D.C. My parents had scheduled a night out, and the baby-sitter bailed at the last moment, so I got hauled along to a dinner in a “real” restaurant and then a movie that my parents thought would bore me senseless.

It enthralled me. It transported me. It made me want to leave my body and fly through the air instantly to wherever it was that movie took place. That was the only place in the world I wanted to be.

The movie was “The King and I,” and the place, obviously, was Thailand. And here I am, 175 years later, living in Thailand part of each year and writing about it. And as much in love with the place now as I was when I first saw “The March of the Siamese Children.”

So my first influences were Rodgers and Hammerstein. Later, I identified more traditional masters for a thriller writer, artists whose work triggered something inside me that made me ask, “Could I do that?” The first of these was the inescapable Raymond Chandler. For all that Chandler repeatedly credited Hammett with inventing the modern whodunit (Hammett gave murder back, Chandler said, to the kind of people who create it), for me the real alchemy came when Chandler created Philip Marlowe.

Chandler also changed my world view. Reading him at, say fourteen, I first became aware that light is, so to speak, a local phenomenon, courtesy of an accidentally nearby star, and that we actually live surrounded by a kind of ravenous darkness in which anything can happen to anyone at any time. That's the thing, I think, that gives Los Angeles sunlight the uniquely cold, chromium brilliance it has in Chandler's books.

In my late teens and twenties I discovered writers who specialized in throwing light onto moral gray areas – first, the great Eric Ambler and second, the incomparable Graham Greene. I became fascinated with shadings of right and wrong, with the idea – new to me then – that moral absolutes were a luxury of the well-fed. Things look much grayer when one's children are hungry or when the rat-infested slum in which you live is set fire to in order to clear land for a skyscraper, or when an 18-year-old girl has to weigh prostituting herself against making money to feed her parents and keep her brothers and sisters in school.

More recently, Robert Wilson's wonderful Bruce Medway books, set in Africa, have explored this ground with skill and a kind of energetic compassion.

So here I am, writing about the land of “The King and I,” using a form borrowed from Chandler and his followers, and exploring a morally complex universe. And as happy doing it as a pig in mud. I have the luxury of living someplace I love (Bangkok) and managing complicated daydreams for a year or so until they're book-length. And my newest Bangkok thriller, BREATHING WATER, has gotten the best reviews of my career, including eight or ten “thriller of the year” designations from sites such as Reviewing the Evidence and Gumshoe Review, as well as some almost embarrassingly positive print reviews.

So I may spend most of each year in Bangkok, but you can give my regards to Broadway.

About Tim:

Timothy Hallinan has lived, on and off, in Southeast Asia for more than 25 years. He wrote songs and sang in a rock band while in college, and many of his songs were recorded by by well-known artists who included the platinum-selling group Bread. He began writing books while enjoying a successful career in the television industry. Over the past fourteen years he has been responsible for a number of well-reviewed novels and a nonfiction book on Charles Dickens. For years he has taught a course on “Finishing the Novel” with remarkable results – more than half his students complete their first novel and go on to a second, and several have been, or are about to be, published. Tim currently maintains a house in Santa Monica, California, and apartments in Bangkok, Thailand; and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He is lucky enough to be married to Munyin Choy-Hallinan.


♥Jen♥ said...

Everyone knows I adore Tim's work because I'm one of the ones raving about both THE FOURTH WATCHER and BREATHING WATER. I'm tickled to hear about Tim's influences because I know it won't be long before I'm reading a similar post from a new writer who credits Tim as one of his/her influences.

Tim, you've created a style that's uniquely Hallinan. It's intoxicating, addicting and brilliant! Thank you! :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

Tim, it was so nice to meet you recently and I am looking forward to starting your book - especially having now read what you wrote here about the appeal of exploring moral ambiguity - but my husband stole your book out of my hands when I returned home and has not yet relinquished it - guess you can count a new fan at our house! Congratulations on all the great press.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Tim, for an inspiring post! I've only been to Bangkok once, but really loved it. It has an incredible energy as a city. Now I have to add your books to the pile my husband just moved from the floor to the dresser because it was falling over and he had to kick his way to bed last night. Patient man, he is.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Thanks to all of you -- great comments that lifted me out of my travel-induced haze (4970 miles and 16 states so far, and miles to go before I sleep. Thanks to Jen, who's the best possible online friend, for all the support, and it was great to meet you, too, Sophie. Hope the book continues to sell so well. Be nice to your husband, and maybe he'll give you the book. Yours is with me in the car, but I haven't had the energy to read much of anything. And Rebecca, thanks for the kind words. I'll bet your husband would be appreciative if you bought only paperbacks. Much harder to fall over.

And thanks to Kelli for inviting me into the fold.

Kelli Stanley said...

Tim, I'm sorry to get here late--day job Monday is almost as difficult as being on the road. :)

Thanks for stopping in, my friend, and congratulations on all your well-deserved and stellar reviews!! We're proud to have you, and please come back when you have more time and be our Grand Master for a week!

And I so agree--Jen should get a medal from the crime writing community for all of her tremendous support. :)

Take care and thanks again!


Shane Gericke said...

Tim, it was very nice to meet you on this forum. My blogmates are so enthused about your work I'm going to have to hit the bookstore tomorrow and get your works.

I particularly loved your phrase about moral absolutes being the luxury of the well-fed. That is insanely true, and American politics these days--particular in health care--prove it. The moral absolutists are the ones with the eight-figure paychecks. The rest of us just want to go to the doctor without going broke.

Graham Greene was one of the most intriguing writers I read growing up. Something about that material, and era, and he captures it so perfectly.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Kelli and Shane -- One of the nicest things about being a writer is that it gives me an excuse to communicate with other writers. I've got an event tonight at Jim Huang's The Mystery Company, and I buy at least one book in every store that hosts me, so guess which two writers I'll be buying tonight?

Great to hear from you both. Maybe we'll all meet up next year at Thrillerfest, if not before.

Shane Gericke said...

A sale? Tim, you are INDEED a gentleman :-)

I'm chairman of ThrillerFest next year, so I'll definitely be running into you. Be sure to stop me and say hey. Looking forward to meeting you.

Timothy Hallinan said...

Hey, Shane, Kelli --

Got CUT TO THE BONE tonight at The Mystery Company but Jim Huang was out of NOX DORMIENDA. Will try again at Foul Play in Columbus/Westerville tomorrow night.

You're chairing Thrillerfest, Shane? How in the world are you going to find time to write? You're a brave man.