Sunday, November 25, 2018

At The Poisoned Pen with Tim Hallinan!

It had been a while since Denis and I had been to The Poisoned Pen, so we didn't waste any time getting across town to see Tim Hallinan, who was in Scottsdale to talk about his latest Junior Bender novel, Nighttown. As is our habit, we showed up plenty early in order to get our preferred seats, but when we walked into the bookstore, the chairs hadn't been set up yet, so I began motoring to the back to sit down and start reading my book. In some dim recess of my mind, I made note of a man browsing the stacks, but that didn't slow me down...

Making a purchase
Until I heard Denis laugh and say, "She didn't even see you!" Oh oh.

I'd just walked right past Tim!

After a quick hug, Tim went up front to buy his books, and then he came back and joined us at the table. From the bookstore newsletter, I knew that Barbara Peters was going to be taking him someplace special before the event, so I had no clue that the three of us (and sometimes more) would be spending the next hour chatting.

We exchanged book recommendations, talked about his works in progress, and so many other things that it's impossible for me to remember them all. I just know that I was enjoying myself immensely. When Barbara came for Tim, it was difficult for me to settle down with my book!

Now it's time to get down to the event, and since I recorded it, I'm going to put my headphones on and let my fingers do the talking. Here goes!

Tim Hallinan & Barbara Peters

Barbara: Thank you all for coming out on what is for Scottsdale a cold evening. I've even got socks on for the first time. And you, you hothouse flower from Southern California-- not even wearing a coat to walk around the canal to see the lights!

Tim: And I'm freezing. Last time I came here it was 109° and I figured, I'm cool, and I am really cool. I almost froze to death.

Barbara: We are here to talk about Junior Bender, and I carefully put Fields Where They Lay next to you because I constantly want to talk about it at this time of year. It's my favorite Junior. You think the first one's funnier, but I think Fields Where They Lay is funnier.

Tim: I think Fields Where They Lay has more heart. There's a Santa Claus named Shlomo, and he more or less transformed the book. When I realized there was going to be a narrative about a Jewish soldier in World War II in danger of being taken by the Nazis and that was a Christmas story, that transformed the entire book. Just like in this one [Nighttown], my discovery that the old man who built the horrible house had written a memoir that no one had ever read-- and I had so much fun writing nineteenth-century prose for that memoir!-- both of these have a thread running through them, a different story going through them, and I really like doing that.

Available Now!
Barbara: I really feel that Fields Where They Lay has a lot of heart, although the idea that all of this can be going down in a mall... I always think of it as the Mall of America but it's really a mall in Los Angeles, isn't it?

Tim: It's Topanga Plaza which started out as a very nice mall and is now the home of Mildew Incorporated. You walk into it and it smells moldy, and the shops have all gone... it really is, it's the mall in the book.

When you've got all sorts of people who invested their lives in starting a business in a mall, that's a long-time dream and it's not their fault that the whole mall industry is tanking.

I liked having a rather sad counterpoint to Christmas, and in the end, we learn that they've all been doing something about Christmas anyway, which I like.

Barbara: We have one of the most successful malls in the country here because it's a super upscale mall-- Scottsdale Fashion Square. This type of mall is doing well, it's the middle- and lower-end malls that are having a hard time and that's largely because online shopping has knocked out so many of the stores that were anchor stores.

Tim: I also think the malls that have climates that you have to hide from some of the time are doing better than the malls in some place like southern California where the weather's pretty much all the same. A lot of the malls in the snowier parts of the country are also doing well.

Barbara: That's because people are going into the malls to do their miles. You see that over there at Fashion Square. But I digress. Let's talk about Nighttown now. Which Junior is this?

Tim: It's number seven.

Barbara: Lucky seven!

Tim Hallinan
Tim: We hope so! This came out of nowhere. I had read a book by a guy named J.B. Priestley who was a gigantic writer in the late twenties, early thirties. He wrote a book called Benighted, and Benighted was filmed as "The Old Dark House." It started a whole genre. It scared the hell out of me when I read it, and I thought "I want to do something like that." I also wanted to do a sort of hymn to darkness at the beginning because I think darkness gets a bum rap in Western culture. And then I wanted to put Junior someplace that was too dark even for Junior. So... the house came up. Horton House!

Barbara: It's a really disgusting house as you describe it.

Tim: Yes, it is.

Barbara: It's just steps away from demolition. Not only is it in horrible shape, the revelation that's made as Junior goes through it that whoever's been taking care of the old lady who's in her nineties and has been confined to her bed for decades has replaced all the good stuff with cheap makeshift furniture. It really broke my heart to think that that was going on. You estimated in the book that that stuff could have been worth at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars...

Tim: At least. If that stuff was good-- and it probably was-- because he was very rich when he bought it and it was all from roughly 1900 to 1914. It would have been worth a fortune. The rugs alone would have been worth a fortune.

Barbara: Let's talk about Junior. Why was he in the house? Let's talk about that because that gets the story going.

Tim: He's there against his better judgment. He's being paid fifty thousand dollars to get something he knows is only worth forty thousand. That sets off all sorts of alarms. Nothing is more dangerous than being paid too highly for a job.

What he's being paid to get is a Jumeau doll. Maison Jumeau was a firm in Paris-- you've seen them-- they made these beautiful porcelain dolls with these incredible costumes. They were very expensive, but the most a Jumeau doll has ever brought at auction is forty thousand dollars, and that's in the original box, which is really rare.

Love Barbara's scarf!
Barbara: They started out as fashion dolls, right?

Tim: Yes, and then they became dolls for little girls, but they weren't really playthings. They were aspirational: this is who you could be if you "marry up."

Junior figures that whatever it is, it isn't the doll, it's something in the doll, and he's right about that. When he gets the doll, it's already gone--

Barbara: And there we can stop!

Tim: Yes.

Barbara: Junior is an interesting guy. He's a burglar, he's kind of a windmill tilter, and he likes to do investigations, but basically, he only works for crooks?

Tim: He works for anybody who can threaten him into working or tempt him into working. He's in an interesting situation because his client is a crook and the person who ripped off his client is a crook. And if he gets close to solving the problem, the person who committed the crime might kill him, and if he doesn't solve it, his client might kill him. So throughout the book, he's always walking a tightrope. He takes the job because he really needs the money for something personal which we don't have to get into-- he and his girlfriend really need the money-- and he knows it's a bad deal. He knows he's being set up.

He takes one look at the house, he goes into the house... the first thing he always does when he goes into a house... before he turns on a light, before he does anything, he stands absolutely quiet for about two minutes and he listens. During those two minutes, the house absolutely overwhelms him. For one thing, it's fantastically dark. He later realizes that the woman who lived there hated the outside world so much that she had her servants paste brown paper supermarket shopping bags over the inside of every single window. For another thing, it absolutely reeks of baby powder. Baby powder is really spooky in this context. It's all wood, and it's old, it's a damp season, and it creaks every time he moves. So he's in this reeking, creaking, pitch-black house, and it just hums with malice.

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Barbara: Wow, it's so Edgar Allan Poe!

Tim: It's a good house to be frightened in.

Barbara: There's a sort of slippery morality that goes on in these books.

Tim: Sure.

Barbara: Junior is a criminal, so we have to work with that. Why is it do you think that people root for Junior even though he is a criminal?

Tim: We have the great advantage that it's his first person. We see everything from his perspective. If he were third person, I don't think we'd like him so much, but we know what he's thinking all the time. And when he's thinking, it's frequently at odds with what he's doing.

Also, he had a mentor named Herbie Mott, the greatest burglar in the history of the San Fernando Valley, and Herbie gave him the Burglar's Ten Commandments. The tenth commandment-- the most important commandment-- when you go into the house, you find the thing that matters most to the homeowner and you leave it there. That will allow you to sleep nights if your conscience is sufficiently elastic. So Junior has at least one principle, and he doesn't harm people intentionally, but he does think of burglary as an art, and he's very good at it. He doesn't have an arrest record, he's never been charged.

Barbara: So what's his backstory? What drew him into a life of crime?

Tim: He did something I once did. He lived next door to an old man who hated his-- my-- dog. He hated my dog. And my dog barked once in a while. And a couple of times the old man went and opened our gate and the dog went out and Animal Control got him. We got him back both times. The third time he did that, I waited until he went out-- he didn't work but once in a while he'd go out for the day-- and I went into his house and I glued everything down that I could. I glued down his television remote. I glued down his ashtray. I glued down everything I could. Just to tie him in knots. [Audience laughter] He came over, raging, and my mother said, 'Well, was anything taken?' And he said, 'No,' and my mother said, 'So what are you talking about?' I got him! And I enjoyed breaking into that house. It felt kind of good in a bad sort of way to be someplace I wasn't supposed to be.

Tim Hallinan
Fan #1: How old were you when you did this?

Tim: I was about nine. So this is Junior's backstory. He really liked breaking into that house, and he used Super Glue-- Super Glue wasn't available when I did it. He superglued the coffee table, he superglued the refrigerator door shut. But this old guy had it coming.

And from then on, I had Junior walking the streets at night thinking about breaking into houses. He wasn't doing it, but he was thinking about it.

One night he's looking at a house that's empty-- the people have been gone for about a month-- and he's really thinking about breaking into it when all of a sudden someone says, 'Scram, kid.' Junior turns around, and it's a little guy in a Lone Ranger mask who's holding a gun on him. Junior looks at the guy and his heart is pounding and he looks at the gun and on the top of the gun he sees a weld of plastic, and he says, 'That's a squirt gun.' The guy says, 'Well, of course it's a squirt gun, you idiot! If you go in with a real gun, it's ten years.'

Junior realizes he's talking to a real burglar. The real burglar, whose name is Herbie Mott, says, 'Tell you what. This is a circle. I need someone to tell me if someone pulls in. If anyone pulls in, honk two times. Here, kid. Here's five hundred bucks. I'm trusting you to stay here and do that.' And Junior does. After the burglary, Herbie takes Junior down to Du-Par's-- a restaurant that had been there for at least sixty years that served pretty good food pretty cheap... and it just got knocked down so they could build a Sephora's because everyone knows the one thing Los Angeles needs is more makeup!

Tim Hallinan
He gives him what Junior comes to think of as the Gospel According to Herbie-- the rules of being a good burglar. Herbie's his mentor; Herbie's the father he never had, and he follows his adopted father into the trade so to speak.

Barbara: Ah, so it's an old-fashioned apprentice type situation.

Tim: Yes, it is.

Barbara: You never did tell us if-- after you glued everything down-- the old man ever let your dog out again?

Tim: No. He never did.

Barbara: So it was effective?

Tim: Oh, yeah! He knew I had done it. You have to pay to get your dog back from Animal Control, and if you don't, they put the dog to sleep, so I thought it was totally worth it. I would've glued him down if he'd been home.

Barbara: So what parallels do you see between Junior and Poke Rafferty?

Tim: They're both me on a good hair day. [Audience laughter] We have a similar code of ethics-- this is so corny-- about love. We really honor the women we're in love with. And we don't fool around. Ever. And we're romantics. We talk more than we should.

[Tim then relates the story of his meeting a filthy little street girl in Bangkok. She came to play games on his laptop for about four years, then she disappeared.] I know what happened to her. She was taken into the sex trade. And I thought, I'm going to have Poke do what I couldn't. So she became Miaow, the little street girl that Poke and Rose adopt. Miaow blossoms. It almost breaks Poke financially, but he sends her to an international school where she becomes interested in acting. And she's just about to play the role she was born to play: Eliza in Shaw's Pygmalion. She's on the verge of making this total butterfly transformation... and something appalling happens. That's what this book is about, it's about her putting her life back together after that. I don't know what the crime is yet; all I've got is a bunch of broken hearts. The crime always comes last.

Tim Hallinan
Barbara: This is the book you're working on now?

Tim: Yeah. It's called Street Music.

Barbara: I like the title!

Tim: Thank you. Street Music refers to the most important non-recurring character in the book. She's homeless and has been living on the streets of Bangkok for sixteen years, and Bangkok is a hard place to be homeless. She's taken a lot of methedrine. It's almost free-- North Korea floods the place with it-- and her mind doesn't always engage. She gets to a point at night when she's loaded when she thinks she can turn all the traffic noises she hears into music. That's what the title refers to.

It's really interesting to write her because she can't keep a goal more than twenty or thirty minutes, and if something happens to startle her, it's like the day was painted on a pane of glass, and it shatters. Then she has to reassemble it. I'm having a great time writing her, as melancholy as that sounds. I don't know what the crime is, but I know the most important thing is family. This entire series is about family.

The next Junior Bender will be an old time rock and roll tour in which a bunch of rotten old bands have gotten together to try to make some money. I happen to hate old music so this will allow me to offend all sorts of people of my generation.

Barbara: What could be better than that?

Tim: Absolutely!

Barbara: I didn't ask the question well, but are there places where Junior and Poke are similar?

Tim: I avoided the answer. I think they're almost identical and that's because I'm a limited writer. They're both me in essence. They're both guys who are just doing the best they can and they tend to get in a lot of trouble.

Tim Hallinan
Junior would never adopt that child. No, I take that back. He would. They're essentially the same but they are in very different circumstances.

Barbara: And now Junior has a permanent romantic relationship but it didn't start out that way.

Tim: Nope.

Barbara: You're just a hopeless family guy!

Tim: What's really funny is that, during a pregnancy that spanned two books, Poke's wife has given birth. The baby is twelve days old at the time this book begins.

Little did I know that Junior's girlfriend has a two-year-old son who is being kept by his father who's a mob doctor in New Jersey. Junior has said that he's going to try to get the kid back. And I realized... I do not want an infant in one series and a two-year-old in the other series. So I've written myself into a box and I don't know how I'm going to get out of it, but I'm not going to have an infant and a two-year-old and that's all there is to it. It's too much energy, and they're not productive to the plots. How are they going to move the mystery forward? What's a twelve-day-old going to do? Cry.

Barbara: Do you still go back to Bangkok?

Tim: Not anymore. I got what I needed out of it. I went there first by accident and I fell in love with it. I stayed there. I wrote there. And finally, I started writing about it. It's an interesting place to write about. On one level, it seems to be so accessible. Everybody smiles at you, everybody talks to you, everybody nods at you. But there are layers and layers and layers and layers!

People talk about it as the land of smiles-- the Thais have categorized seventeen different kinds of smiles-- some of them mask sadness, some mask hostility, and some of them mask humiliation. It's considered good breeding to meet everything with a smile. The first few days I was there, I realized that these muscles were hurting so much because I was smiling back at so many people. I can now recognize some of those smiles.

Tim Hallinan
There's a scene in Street Music in which the homeless woman is standing on Patpong watching all the men and women walk past, and she realizes that she can see the smiles coming up and going out like people lighting matches in the crowd. She starts categorizing the smiles she sees and she can feel the muscle memory of these smiles on her own face. I like it because it puts us inside her head and also because it's important to know that, to a foreigner, it's just a smile, but to a Thai, it's like music-- on a scale of tones.

Barbara: You have to get skillful at reading other cultures' body language.

Tim: Yes! It all seems so open, it all seems so transparent, but there are so many layers! It seems very fluid, and you can always travel, but you can only travel down. Almost no one travels up in that society. It's very easy to come to grief and fall down. Very hierarchical. Very rigid at the top, yet it all seems so plastic and so welcoming and so friendly. It's one of the most deceptive places I've ever been, which makes it really good to write about.

Barbara: I can see how it would. I just had a discussion with one of my authors about a tic-- we're finishing up his book-- and the dialogue seemed to constantly begin with 'he nodded' or something is said and then 'he nodded.' So I suggested that we lose the nodded. He pointed out to me that, when writing about Greece, it's what they do. It's a cultural thing. Instead of smiling, you nod. He's writing in Greece, so he picked all that up. I told him that most of that has to come out of the book because it's boring, but I hadn't thought about picking up all these cultural cues when you're writing in a specific place.

Tim: Yes, in Thailand there's this whole language of smiles that doesn't relate to anything we have here. I just barely scratched the surface.

Fan #2: Where does the name 'Junior' come from?

Listening to Barbara
Tim: Junior's very unsympathetic father is the kind of guy-- all my characters have terrible fathers and I have one of the best fathers in history, I don't know why this is-- [Audience Laughter] He's the kind of guy who just has to name his kid after himself and call him Junior, but his name is Merle, and he's not going to stick his kid with the name Merle, so he named him Junior so he could call him Junior. Junior is his actual given name. Junior T. Bender. I don't know what the T stands for. [More Laughter]

Barbara: I just finished reading a book recently. I don't know if it was the new Lee Child or what-- it's all a blur at the moment-- but a character's giving himself an alias, like Harvey Winterbottom, Jr., and the point is that almost no one who adopts a pseudonym ever thinks of calling himself a junior, and the junior makes the entire name seem legitimate. I thought that was so clever! I'd never really thought about it.

Tim: That was actually me.

Barbara: Was that you?

Tim: It's the guy who built Horton House, and Junior thinks, 'Wow, no one ever does that!'

Barbara: I should have known it was you!

Tim: One of the things I like about Junior is this kind of insight-- all of which I make up. [He then went on to tell us about Crashed and the refrigerator burglaries, as well as how to climb a chainlink fence, how to breathe, and how to walk up a flight of stairs in total darkness.]

Tim & Barbara
Barbara: I really think Tim's out there in the field, testing all these things out!

Tim: Rats! Busted!

Barbara: I think you have a great natural talent for crime.

Tim: I probably could have had a great criminal career. Actually, it's a really safe kind of fantasy because you know you're never going to do it.

Fan #3: Was that the only Du-par's that was left? The one Junior keeps meeting people at?

Tim: No, there's one down in a place in Hollywood called The Grove, which will also be knocked down because they're expanding The Grove. But Du-par's? It was in one place for seventy-five years!

Fan #3: I was just wondering because I finished Michael Connelly's Dark Sacred Night a few days ago, and in it, Harry Bosch and Renée Ballard go to Du-par's, and I thought, 'Wow, I was just there with Junior!'


Tim: They're probably in the one downtown, although Harry doesn't live that far away. He's about four or five miles from that Du-par's.

Barbara: That's a great line. I love it. 'I was just there with Junior!'

Tim: It's gone now. They've already bulldozed it, but I nail them in the final of this book. I'm really ticked off about it, and I call them out!


After a minute or two talking about the horrendous fires in California and the sobering fact that Tim wants to end both of his current series and begin something new, the event ended, but I wanted to share something that happened with my copy of Nighttown. At the very beginning, Barbara saw my copy and asked if she could display it on the table, promising to give me a fresh, new copy. There were a few reasons why I was reluctant: (1) There were Post-It flags marking many pages. (2) Receipts and loose papers were stuffed inside, too. (3) Most importantly, it was autographed to me. Barbara got a different copy!

My copy of Nighttown

But it didn't end there. While Barbara was getting that other copy, Tim was fascinated with mine. It must have been the flags because Tim is a self-professed dog-earer and margin scribbler. He wanted to see the types of things I single out while I'm reading. His eyes fell upon this quote that I'd marked:

It always amazed me how someone I loved so much could weigh so little; you would have thought the sheer volume of affection I'd poured into her would weigh her down, if only a tiny bit. Maybe love is lighter than air.

Tim looked at me, smiled, and handed me back my copy of Nighttown. I don't know about you, but I think that particular quote says an awful lot about this talented writer!


  1. What a great combination, Cathy! Hallinan and the PP! I really respect him and his work; hopefully I'll get the chance to hear him at some point.

  2. This was great, Cathy! Totally enjoyed it and learned so much. Have not read any of his books, but I do remember seeing him at Left Coast. We have some friends that live in Chiang Mai, Thailand and I keep thinking I need to try the Thai series and now I think I need to try the other one as well. :-)

    1. Yes, you should-- and you might want to think about sharing them with your husband. He just might like them, too.

  3. Another great 'report'! And I love the ending about his looking at your book!

    1. I treasure that smile he gave me. I know he was thinking of his wife, and he was happy to think that I had someone in my own life that I felt that way about.


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