Tag Archives: Chinese

Doctor Wu

Red Jade: A Detective Jack Yu Investigation by Henry Chang (Soho Crime; $25.00; 256 pages)

“Killing two bad guys, taking a cold-blooded murderer home.   Not bad for a few days in Seattle, huh?”

Reading Red Jade by Henry Chang is like being on a diet of tasteless fiber before enjoying a fine helping of spicy Mongolian Beef.   The vivid cinematic ending is literally preceded by a couple of hundred pages written in a dull and plodding style.   In fact, make that plodding, plodding, plodding.

The reader will need to take a suspension-of-reality pill before accepting the story that’s told here.   New York Police Detective Jack Wu is an Asian quasi super-hero who can solve multiple crimes while spending a weekend in Seattle, Washington.   It’s so hard to believe that Yu can solve a murder that took place in New York City’s Chinatown while in Seattle that the author himself asks of Jack, “How much destiny could he take?”   Wherever Detective Yu goes, the evil people he needs to find just happen to be in the neighborhood.

It may or may not be worth mentioning that the book starts with the bloody murder of a young man and a young woman in New York’s Chinatown.   This precedes Jack’s traveling to Seattle with his sometime girlfriend (she’s there attending a legal conference), where he not only solves the case in chief, but another big one while he’s at it.   Yes, the world is just a stage for Detective Yu.

One might be tempted to think that there’s going to be some interesting scenery covered in a tale set in Seattle.   Instead, except for a few walks on very mean streets, the majority of the tale involves Jack’s stay at the Marriott Courtyard near Sea-Tac, while his girlfriend beds at the far more impressive Westin downtown.   Jack has an entire extended weekend to work his magic, which sometimes involves beating up two foes at once using his very impressive kung-fu style skills.   Sometimes, though, Jack falls back on simply shooting the bad guys when he’s not getting the best of things.   Yippee Ki-yay!, as Bruce Willis might say.

Still, credit has to be given to Chang for fashioning a surprisingly energetic and involving ending.   It’s a shame it takes one such effort to get to it.   This reader felt worn down by the telling, as if the reading took away more energy from me than it could ever hope to repay.   Chang writes in small bits and bites (some chapters covering only a single page), which makes me think his skills might be better applied to very short crime stories.   Let’s just hope that he comes up with protagonists that are more reality-based than Detective Jack Yu.  

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Said Publishers Weekly of Red Jade:  “What started as a promising series has devolved into something quite run-of-the-mill…”

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Song Sung Blue

The Ghost of Neil Diamond by David Milnes

Commenting on the status of the modern hero in fiction, Martin Amis argued, “Nowadays our protagonists are a good deal lower down the human scale than their creators:  they are anti-heroes, sub-heroes.”   One hopes that this dictum holds true for David Milnes, author of The Ghost of Neil Diamond.   For Milnes’ protagonist, bearing the blandly English name of Neil Atherton, is a lost man on the edge of the abyss.

Atherton has washed up in Hong Kong, dragged into the territory on the coat-tails of his wife, Angel.   Back in England, back in the past, he had known modest success as a musician on the folk scene club circuit.   But now he’s 48, these meagre stage triumphs are a fading memory and Atherton appears increasingly redundant to his younger wife, who has carved out a niche for herself in the city’s corporate hierarchy.

Eventually, an exasperated Angel washes her hands of her husband, leaving him enough Hong Kong dollars for a flight back to the United Kingdom with some to spare.   But Atherton refuses to retreat with his tail between his legs.   He falls into the ambit of Elbert Chan, a diminutive Cantonese businessman operating from a seedy backstreet office.   Chan handed his business card to the Englishman after a rousing rendition of “Song Sung Blue” and now dangles before the destitute Atherton the lucrative prospect of being part of a celebrity tribute act.   Neil’s preparation is not just to learn how to sing like Neil Diamond but, in some Zen-like way, to become the American superstar.

While waiting for Chan’s purported connections to open doors, Atherton spends his nights on the floor of a language school’s classroom and purgatorial days wandering the humid streets of an alien city.   There are echoes here of Poe’s short story, “The Man of the Crowd.”

Ostensibly rooted in the superficial world of tribute singers, this is a book that subtly plays with the tropes associated with its subject matter to raise some interesting questions about what represents the real, and what constitutes the fake.   Crossing the spectacular Tsing Ma Bridge, Atherton reflects on the engineers and builders who make this feat of engineering possible and compares their achievement with his own contribution to this world:

His sort need not be taken at all.   There was…  a need of some kind for people such as Neil Diamond, though surely even they must find it hard to live with themselves after a while.   But whatever case could be made for the pedlar of…  illusion, there was surely no case at all to defend one who only followed, the counterfeit and imposter running along behind.

This angst over how the professional impostor can maintain his self-worth reaches a crescendo in the novel’s second half, when Atherton’s attempt to usurp another Diamond impersonator – a photocopy of a photocopy – threatens to annihilate his personality.

This book has its comic aspects, but it’s a dark comedy.   The environment through which the main actor moves like a ghost is deftly evoked.   The ambience of subterranean hotel bars is conjured with a reference to mirror balls that “shed loose change all over the floor.”   The Star Ferry that shuttles between Kowloon and the island is revivified with a simile:  “Children scrambled ahead and flipped over the back-rests, making a wonderful clattering sound across the teak decks, like the fall of mah-jong tiles.”

Above all, this book meditates on how the city can be framed in radically different ways:  how it appears in the floor-to-ceiling panes of an exclusive hotel’s breakfast bar as opposed to the prospect offered by the windows of a McDonald’s.

Despite some ragged edges, this is a work of unexpected substance.

This review was written by Shane Berry.   It appeared in original form (“A Ghost of a Chance”) on the Dublin, Ireland based writing website A Harmless Fraud; http://www.harmlessfraud.com/ .   Used with the permission of the reviewer and the book’s author, David Milnes.

 

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