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The Sirens of Suspense




Timothy Hallinan is the Edgar and Macavity Award-nominated author of the Poke Rafferty Bangkok thrillers, the most recent of which is THE FEAR ARTIST (Soho Crime), has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly (“heart-rending and unforgettable”), Booklist, and Library Journal. Hallinan also wrote a six-book series in the 1990s featuring erudite PI Simeon Grist and is presently writing a series of comic thrillers about Junior Bender, a Los Angeles burglar who moonlights as a private eye for crooks.  In 2011 he conceived and edited SHAKEN: STORIES FOR JAPAN, to which 20 authors contributes stories, with 100% of the proceeds going to Japanese tsunami relief.

Find Timothy on Twitter.

Eight Legs Too Many item1

One of the questions frequently asked of thriller writers is how much our characters are like us.

I believe I can safely answer for all of us. Our heroes are exactly like us, except that they're, smarter, braver, more resourceful, more attractive, and with better hair. But in one way, they're identical. They're afraid of at least one thing that scares their creators rigid.

With me, it's spiders.

At a somewhat emotionally fraught moment toward the end of the fifth Poke Rafferty thriller, The Fear Artist, Poke is in pursuit of a disturbed child who's just been through a traumatic experience. He searches the back yard of the house in which she lives and finds a kind of tunnel, just big enough to crawl through, cut into a thick hedge at the rear of the property. He's pretty sure she's in there.

The problem is, it's night. It's raining, there's no moon, and the inside of that tunnel is blacker than the hip pocket of beyond, and it takes Poke no imaginative energy whatsoever to picture webs spun across the passage, and in their centers spiders the diameter of dinner plates. There's reason to expect this; in the tropics, vermin get very ambitious. In upcountry Thailand I've seen tarantulas the size of footstools.

So here's what Poke does: “Putting one hand on the flooded lawn, he reaches in and waves the other hand around, hoping to avoid coming face-to-belly with one of the extravagant spiders of the tropics.” So far in this scene, he and I are alike. But then, he demonstrates just how fictional he is: he crawls in. Me, I wouldn't go into that tunnel if the hounds of hell were behind me.

One of my earliest memories, when I was three or four, is of a brown spider scuttling across a white bedsheet. Unfortunately, it was my white bedsheet, and my mother had just turned it down with her free arm. The other was holding me until I tried to crawl over her shoulder and down her back to get out of the room. The spider was dispatched, but that night and for several nights thereafter I slept with my parents.

Nineteen or twenty years later, when I was living in one of those just-pre-demolition dumps so beloved of college students, I awoke one bright moonlit night to see, about five inches away on my pillow, the shiny, articulated form of a black widow. I got up somehow without, so far as I recall, moving my arms and legs. (I think that on film it would look like backwards footage of someone falling poleaxed onto the bed.) I killed the spider eight or nine times, and when I was sure it was really and truly dead—not just mostly dead and seething impatiently for the right moment to regenerate and sink its fangs—I very carefully turned it over with a nice long back-scratcher, and there was the little red fiddle.


But even that memory pales beside the time, in the rural northeast of Thailand, when I was walking at dusk on a path beside some rice paddies and the person I was with stopped suddenly, grabbed my arm, pointed and said, “Maeng mum yai yai," which means, essentially "big big spider," I looked but didn't see it at first—and then I realized I was looking between the front legs of the biggest thing I've ever seen unsaddled. I was outdoors, and I used up quite a bit of the outdoors before I was satisfied I'd left it far enough behind.

So why, you might ask if you're still awake, does an arachnophobe like Hallinan live in the tropics if he's such a fraidy cat about a few little spiders? The answer is in two parts. First, I love Thailand. Second, I have faith in the filtering power of money to keep the more horrifying vermin at a distance.

It's my experience that really nice hotels and apartment houses, with big lobbies and active maintenance staffs and gleaming marble floors, are unlikely to play host to giant rats and to spiders so big they should wear sleighbells. And so far, it's worked, if you don't count one very small scorpion in my bed at the Ritz-Carlton on Maui. But I got it before it got me, and we had free food for the rest of our stay. I have to admit, though, it's unsettled me a little. The Ritz-Carlton? Scorpions?

To get back to the book, Poke does crawl through that tunnel, but only after that pathetic little hand-wave that he hopes will knock down the webs without his having to meet their owners. And when he gets inside, what he finds breaks his heart. Poke is by nature a fixer, especially where broken lives are concerned, but this situation is beyond fixing.



WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF? TELL US OR ASK TIM A QUESTION by commenting below or visit us and share your thoughts on our Facebook page and be entered to win a signed copy of THE FEAR ARTIST!

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