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Chan Siu-kai (a.k.a. Charlie), a chief inspector in the Crown Colony's Royal Police Force, has little time to waste on worrying about what may happen when Communists take control of the world's most capitalistic city. Indeed, the Eurasian detective (who blames the PRC's Cultural Revolution for the death of his beloved Chinese mother) is preoccupied with solving three nauseating homicides. When the virtually clueless case (which the local press has dubbed the Mincer Murders because the victims were sliced and diced beyond recognition) draws him into waters claimed by the mainland (to recover a trio of severed heads), his bosses take a hand in the game. With the resourceful assistance of forensic specialists, Charlie (a divorced loner with few interests outside his job) eventually develops some leads. His tentative identifications of the deceased flush out new informants from as far away as America. Although crafty Brit officials continue to place obstacles in his path, the determined sleuth follows a trail leading to an underwater site on the Kowloon side of the harbor. What he finds suggests that there's appreciably more to the original killings than a commercial dispute among drug-dealing triads, the official version of events. At no small personal, professional, and spiritual cost, Charlie eventually learns that his suspicions were well-founded and that the incoming Reds will prove infinitely worse masters than their rapacious predecessors.
While the author leans heavily on his broody protagonist as a symbolic embodiment of never-the-twain-shall-meet angst, the twisty narrative packs a cynical wallop.
“John Burdett is purely and simply a wonderful writer.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Capture[s] the verve and excitement of Hong Kong in its heyday.” —Boston Herald
“Enthralling.” —Publishers Weekly
“John Burdett’s crime novels . . . are lovely and complex. . . . The reader is transported to a foreign world made familiar through the voice of his guide.” —The Denver Post
“Burdett’s fever-dream mysteries recast the police procedural as psychedelic peep show.” —The New Yorker
“You might find yourself addicted to Burdett’s sizzling prose.” —San Antonio Express News
“John Burdett is writing the most exciting set of crime novels in the world.” —The Oregonian
“Time and again, John Burdett breaks the crime-thriller mold. And then reassembles it, piece by piece. His narrative becomes more than the sum of its parts. . . . Thoroughly enjoyable.” —New York Journal of Books
Posted November 21, 2012
This book is advertised as being in print for the first time in 15 years – a significant time frame, for fifteen years ago Hong Kong was getting ready for the handover of rule of the country from England to China, a momentous occasion after one hundred years of British rule. This is a fascinating book, with writing that is by turn wonderful, delightful and enchanting. The protagonist, “Charlie” Chan Siu-kai, Chief Inspector, Homicide, Eurasian – half Irish, half Chinese, 36 years old, and divorced.from an Englishwoman. He loves his city: We are told that “Chan would have turned down the governorship of Hong Kong so long as he could always be Chinese in an Asian street market;” he “liked the smell of Chinese books, subtly different from Western books. There were no pictures on the heavy paper covers, no commercialism at all; the print was everything. It was the way books should always smell: paper, binding and words, no frills.”
As the book begins, eight weeks before the handover, a public clock, large and digital, reads six million seconds. As one bystander says, “one second for each of us – and disappearing.” As the book ends, the display shows less than two and a half million seconds left to run: 28 days to go. The time in between shines a light – not the most flattering, to be sure – on the country and the people. That unflattering portrait is not limited to the Far East, it should be noted. The book provides an insight into that world that few non-inhabitants get to see [other than events such as the very public murder of students in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989].
The cast of characters includes the Commissioner of Police, the Right Honorable Ronald “Ronny” Tsui, JP; Chief Supt. John Riley; Inspector Richard Aston, 24-year-old blond Brit; a 49-year-old alcoholic shoplifter from the Bronx; also “an aging psychopath, a sex-hungry billionairess and a scheming diplomat,” of whom Charlie says his “penthouse flat was to light, air and space what Chan’s was to darkness, asphyxiation and cramp“ and notes that he owns “the best collection of opium pipes Chan had seen outside an antiques dealer’s showroom.”
It is noted that “the Chinese Navy, always sensitive to foreign incursions, had never forgiven the theft of Hong Kong by bullies in British uniforms more than a hundred years before” and that “it was true what they told you when you first came out: The longer you remained in the Far East, the less you understood.” When he is working on a particularly gruesome triple murder at the outset of the novel, Chan believes he’s being sabotaged, but doesn’t know the source. The answers don’t come till the end, in one of many surprising turns of events. This is a dense book, but well worth the submersion. It is highly recommended.
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