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In the early 1980s, Martin Cruz Smith and Stuart M. Kaminsky--more or less simultaneously--wrote novels that followed decent detectives stuck investigating crime in the evil setting of the USSR. A few years later, Philip Kerr followed with the Bernhard Gunther books, which did the same thing for Nazi Berlin. Nowadays, the device is fairly common, The best recent example may be, Qiu Xiaolong's Chief Inspector Chen Cao books, set in the People's Republic of China. The appeal of the genre is that it amps up the tension of the original hard-boiled detectives, who only had to worry about the cops, the manipulative rich, and gangsters. For these newer heroes, it is the entire system of their native lands that is devoted to hiding truth and thwarting justice. They have to put themselves at tremendous risk to solve crimes and are required by their milieu to make compromises with their consciences. When done well, as by these authors, it is a form that makes for great reading.

If we forget about the Arnold Schwarzenegger film, Red Heat--and it does deserve forgetting--Simon Lewis may be one of the first to reverse this idea and have a detective/policeman from a totalitarian nation come to the West to investigate a crime. In this case, Inspector Jian travels from Beijing to Britain in search of his daughter, who's disappeared from University after a frantic phone call. Mr. Lewis makes the most of the fish-out-of-water potential and even works in a more naive sort of sidekick, Ding Ming, an illegal immigrant worker whose wife is missing. The view of England through their eyes is revealing and often funny and the action sequences are handled smoothly.

But I had a problem with the whole exercise. Why exactly am I supposed to root for a PRC henchman? Here's how Jian is described:
He had loved and hated as directed and worshipped Mao without reservation. There'd been songs and passion and a sense of purpose. Then times changed, and the lights he'd been brought up to live by had been shown to lead nowhere. Past struggles had been revealed as a tremendous waste of time. his idol Mao was an old f[***] and a fraud. Well, he would not be fooled again. He believed in nothing now -- there was only luck and money, and you'd better have one or the other.
Call me old-fashioned, but I want more than that from my heroes. And his daughter is nearly as unsympathetic. The help he ends up providing to Ding Ming and the fact that the crooks he's up against are so reprehensible does enable us to root for him by the end, but rather reluctantly. Generally when we come upon his sort in a noir it is his demise we enjoy, not his triumph. This seems likely to be a series and we'll have to hope than Inspector Jian finds some things worth believing in so that we can want him to succeed.


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Simon Lewis Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Simon Lewis Writer
    -BLOG: Simon Lewis Comrade Hack
    -AUTHOR PAGE: Simon Lewis (Simon & Shuster)
    -GOOGLE BOOK: Rough Guide to Beijing by Simon Lewis
    -ESSAY: Bad Traffic: Simon Lewis on his striking crime novel (Simon Lewis, Crime Time)
    -ESSAY: Dali, China (Simon Lewis, 2/01/09, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: A dangerous untruth: E.ON's claims for coal are deluded. We can't afford the huge environmental cost of burning this fuel (Simon Lewis, 1 August 2008, The Guardian)
    -ESSAY: Westwood fails to keep up with Singh (Simon Lewis, 8/04/08, The Guardian)
    -EXCERPT: from Bad Traffic
    -INTERVIEW: with Simon Lewis (Marshal Zeringue , Writer Interviews)
    -INTERVIEW: with Simon Lewis (Yorkshire Post, 2/01/08)
-ARCHIVES: Simon Lewis (The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Bad Traffic by Simon Lewis (Patrick Anderson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Bad Traffic (Joe Hartlaub, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Bad Traffic (The Week)
    -REVIEW: of Bad Traffic (It's a Crime)
    -REVIEW: of Bad Traffic (Laura Root, EuroCrime)
    -REVIEW: of Bad Traffic (Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Bad Traffic (Oline H. Cogdill, McCLATCHY- TRIBUNE)

Book-related and General Links: