Disability activism has its own estuaries within the annals of identity politics, an assertion that those with broken bodies are tougher than average because they develop a set of survival skills more functional individuals may lack, like coping with stark orthopedic surgeries, only to then face a life long acquaintance with institutional paradigms, the cruelty of which might lead to the desire to test one’s mettle. How graphic is too graphic for a reader to handle? What literature pushes boundaries without threatening to nose dive into lurid sensationalism?
Timothy Hallinan’s first novel in his Poke Rafferty series, A Nail Through the Heart, can put the grimmest urban reality to the test. Set in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami, it opens with a scene otherwise typical for Asian noir: an unnamed burglar eliminates his partner in crime, a safe cracker, fakes an injury to the security guard complicit in the scheme, and steals some implicating photos. Just another procedural with a ruthless villain, except for the fact that Hallinan embeds his plot with skillful character development, a delineated humanism of a man creating valued familial bonds in a harsh world of degradation and corruption.
Rafferty is set up as an itinerant travel writer in a relationship with a go go dancer named Rose, and the rescued street orphan, Miaow, a prospective adoptee who in turn attempts to rescue Superman, an eleven year old with bad karma and a fearsome reputation, and in the process of this challenging domestication, Poke discovers his detective friend, Arthit, throws him a missing persons case. Clarissa Ulrich’es Australian uncle Claus is missing, and into the murky orbit of Thai maids, leading to the well fortified home of Madame Wing we go, the burglar’s intended target. Hell seems like a trip to Disneyland in comparison to the legacies of torture Poke uncovers.
But Hallinan isn’t intent on simply exposing one kind of human suffering. He brackets contemporary human trafficking, the exploitation of child pornography, around the history of political genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge with such force that snapping the kindle shut on the last chapter is a welcome respite in the dark before dawn. If the other mysteries in the franchise are anything like the first, Hallinan’s dark appeal may ruin someone’s breakfast, but his heart ache, his possibilities for redemption, make A Nail Through the Heart the triumph of its genre.