Timothy Hallinan's The Fear Artist puts the mysterious Phoenix Program--a real government venture--front and center in its twisting crime story. Here, Hallinan writes about how he combined fact and fiction to create his world.
At the beginning of chapter seven in my new Poke Rafferty Bangkok thriller, The Fear Artist, is the following passage:
"Power in the dark seems to Rafferty to be the defining form of evil in the twenty-first century. It’s evolved from an occasional governmental tactic into business as usual, as the world’s rulers find goals in common—usually economic goals that benefit the rich—and pursue them jointly, turning out the lights on the contradictions between what they say and what they do."
The specific “power in the dark” explored in The Fear Artist is the so-called War on Terror, much of which is classified, sometimes for the very good reason that it shreds international accords. Still, there's enough information out there to make a factual case in a fictional book, which is one of the things I think fiction is good for. Of course, when a writer tries to do that, he faces the challenge of making the truth plausible.
Unlike the news, fiction demands plausibility. Fiction's great advantage is that you can introduce factual material in the form of characters, individuals who rise or fall on their personal believability. The Fear Artist is packed with people who, on the face of it, might seem implausible. If they come through as real on the page, it's because they are; most of them are modeled on people I've met.
The book's main villain is former soldier in his dangerous seventies named Haskell Murphy. I knew at the beginning of the book that Murphy would be one of the small number of U.S. troops who got rich in Vietnam and took root in Southeast Asia to serve as a fixer and to do the occasional bit of strong-arm work.
As I researched military corruption in Vietnam, I kept tripping over something called The Phoenix Program. There are websites for debating The Phoenix Program. One thing that caught my attention was that the arguments were mostly over whether it had been effective and justified, not whether it had actually existed.
And this was puzzling, because The Phoenix Program was nothing less than a U.S. assassination campaign (possibly the first in our history) in which up to 1,800 Vietnamese noncombatants were identified each month as potential Vietcong cadres and either killed on “snatch-and-snuff” missions or given “enhanced interrogation” which often resulted in death. As I read, I asked myself whether all this could possibly be true.
In fact, it is true. It's exhaustively documented, in books, films, and articles. It was in operation from 1965 to 1972, and during that period it killed or tortured (or both) more than 80,000 Vietnamese civilians.
So as a character in my book, Murphy got rich, as several others did, by taking money to keep people off, or put people on, the list. This worked great, from my perspective. But there was still a missing link: Murphy had been Phoenix, and at the time of the book is a freelance operative in the War on Terror. Was there a historical connection between The Phoenix Program and the War on Terror?
Was there ever.
In the weeks after 9/11, the Pentagon, tasked with coming up with an operational plan for the American response, looked at the situation: the enemy living among the general population, indistinguishable from them, in scattered villages, linked by invisible communication lines, in countries where we were already hated. Hmmmm, they thought. What does this remind us of?
So the Phoenix Program became a basic plank of the War on Terror. Abu Ghraib—that was The Phoenix Program. Some suspected terrorist getting dusted by a drone in Afghanistan—that's a high-tech echo of The Phoenix Program.
As appalling as I found this personally, it gave me exactly what I needed. It brought my hero, Poke Rafferty, up against a classic Power in the Dark operation, one in which the book's villain had been engaged since 1969.
I'm grateful to say that I haven't personally known anyone like Murphy. But the second-least probable character in the book, I know quite well. His name is Vladimir, and he was, during the Vietnam War, a spy for the Soviet Union.
When Rafferty realizes that he's run afoul of the War on Terror and that some of those who are sniffing around him are spies, he decides he needs spies on his side. So he goes to a bar and sits down at a table that's being shared by retired spies from all sides of the Cold War. And Rafferty waves around some money and buys himself some information—essentially, most of what I've just told you about the Phoenix Program—and a couple of paid, if undependable, allies.
That bar—Lucy's Tiger Den—existed for years in Bangkok, and it was one of the most peculiar places I've ever been in. Guys who would have killed each other on sight in the 70s, getting drunk and refighting the old battles and then staggering off together into the hot night. I met the model for Vladimir there, and his voice is drawn from life.
Finally, there's the unlikeliness of the War on Terror being waged in a Buddhist country such as Thailand. But, in fact, Thailand has its own, awful little Muslim insurrection, in areas of the far south that were part of Malaysia until 1909 and are even now 80% Muslim. There's been unrest down there for decades, but after 9/11, Islamic fundamentalist militancy organized across borders, and the problems down south killed so many Buddists—5,000 to 6,000—that Thailand declared Martial law and the U.S., always on the lookout for new extremist strongholds, tripled its military presence in the country.
So, all these improbabilities—the War on Terror taking root in a Buddhist kingdom, retired Soviet spies rattling around, a character who earned his bones and his millions in the most morally suspect enterprise of the Vietnam war, now active in the War on Terror—were all really there. All waiting to be written about, to be made plausible. Right on the sidewalks.
And people ask me why I write about Bangkok.