A Felonious Christmas with Timothy Hallinan
Christmas is a time of joy, celebrations, bright lights and cheesy songs we’ve all heard a million times before but will power through again for the sake of tradition. It’s the one time of year that’s really supposed to bring everyone together and inspire true happiness to be live… which in turn means that it makes a perfect setting for macabre murders, at least in literature. Every author that visits it tries to leave some kind of personal mark, a new take that will distinguish their work from that of their peers. It’s pretty safe to say that at this point it’s a bit of Herculean task considering how many writers have given it a shot over the years. Nevertheless, I believe that Timothy Hallinan managed to do so in his latest Junior Bender novel titled Fields Where They Lay , taking place during those festive days inside Edgerton Mall.
For those who aren’t up-to-date with the series, Junior Bender is a thief extraordinaire that has a bit of reputation in the criminal world, and has despite that managed to stay in liberty for quite a long time, as well as keep up his life as a single father. Anyhow, with Christmas being in full tow the Russian mobster-owned Edgerton Mall is facing quite a problem, aside from the fact that it seems like it’s about to close any second now: a shoplifting epidemic. Reasoning that it takes a thief to catch one, the owner hires Bender to put a stop to this madness and hopefully cut back on some losses. Unfortunately for both of them, two dead bodies turn up and it becomes clear that more will follow unless Bender can unravel the thread of this very festive murder mystery that will take him about as deep as he’s used to venturing into ridiculous territory.
Realism and Absurdity Conjoined at the Hip
When a writer tries to pen a book, they generally tend to choose one primary style and stick to it throughout the entire story, generally because they feel that’s where their strength lies and because it takes a special amount of skill to combine different approaches and perspectives. I feel like Timothy Hallinan really has that something special as a writer and we can see it on full display in this novel. On one hand, we have the whole murder plot which in itself is pretty macabre and gives way to some dark and serious moments that force you to reflect on the despicable bottom a human being can reach. The bad guys in this story are also portrayed in a very convincing manner that can wipe a smile off your face in an instant, just by reminding you that such people exist and are more common than anyone would like.
On the other hand, this is a Junior Bender story, and it wouldn’t be complete without a solid dose of hilarious absurdity. Much of the comedy is situational and borders on the ridiculous and inexplicable. As we see him work his way from one clue to the next we basically witness one foolish and laughable scenario after the next, which is only complemented by the colourful cast which includes moody teenagers, an extremely secretive girlfriend, some perplexing conmen, and a criminal with an aptitude none could have expected in a million years. There are more than enough moments that will make you smile, and a few that will likely have you laughing out loud, at least to yourself.
Hallinan very skillfully combines those two elements to create a fast-paced and multifaceted story that accomplishes the primary goal of any murder mystery: to hold the reader’s attention and make them turn the pages so fast they forget what time it is. Whether it’s through laughter or intrigue, the novel never fails to entertain the reader.
A Touch of Humanity
While Junior Bender certainly makes for a fine vessel to amuse us through his misadventures, the author ensures that we keep in mind that he is indeed a person with some depth, someone whose life seems to have taken a million bad turns. Not only do we become well-acquainted with his somewhat cynical and dismissive nature, but we also get a peek inside his own personal life. We see the realistic human traits shine from him through his care for his teenage daughter, his attempt to maintain a semblance of family life even after a divorce. All these little things add up and in the end paint a compelling and interesting picture of a rather unique person, one that still leaves quite a lot of room for development.
If Fields Where They Lay does have a weak point in there somewhere, I would say that a number of the secondary characters felt a bit too one-dimensional, in the sense that they existed for the purpose of following their archetype. While it is fair to say that there simply isn’t enough time to develop everyone without hurting the story’s pacing, it would have been preferable if a few of them didn’t feel like caricatures. With that being said, considering the kind of humour this book is going for, I believe this is definitely something that can be overlooked seeing as how, in a way, it complements the absurd atmosphere.
The Final Verdict
Bringing all these thoughts together, Fields Where They Lay is certainly one of the more entertaining murder mystery novels to be published recently, especially if we look amongst Christmas-themed works. It has pretty much everything you could want from the genre, ranging from hilariously absurd segments to thought-provoking reflections and complemented by a solid plot with a fair amount of twists and turns. Timothy Hallinan did a commendable job on this and has certainly established himself as one of the powerhouses in this genre.
Timothy Hallinan is an American writer who has lived off and on in Bangkok since the early 1980s, using his time there as inspiration for his new series revolving around a rough-and-tumble travel writer by the name of Philip Rafferty. His two other series are about Simeon Grist, a private detective in Los Angeles, and Junior Bender, a thief with a sense of morality. His most popular works include Skin Deep, A Nail Through the Heart, and Little Elvises.