Timothy Hallinan, Christopher West Series
West Meets East
As someone who writes mystery/thrillers set in Asia, I keep an eye on the competition. And I'd be lying if I said that I greet with unreserved enthusiasm the publication of a novel by a writer who intends to take a bite out of what I think of, in my less generous moments, as my fictional territory.
So I'm in an awkward position when it comes to Christopher West. West's four novels about police inspector Wang, set in Beijing, are definitely competition – or they would be, if they were still in print and West had a new one coming out. But they're not, and he doesn't, and that's a terrible shame. West is a wonderful writer and he deserves a broad and appreciative audience.
The book that begins the series, Death of a Blue Lantern, is a great place to start. Attending a performance of the Beijing Opera, Wang takes his time leaving the theater, and on his way out he notices a patron who seems to be drunk or unconscious. He's not, of course; he'd dead, dispatched with a tidy knife wound to the back of the neck, destroying the medulla oblongata. The victim proves to be a “blue lantern,” or low-level Triad recruit, and Wang's investigation quickly leads him to the Triad's “Red Cudgel,” or enforcer – and his beautiful daughter, who sings in a foreigners-only nightclub atop one of Beijing's most expensive hotels.
The plot ultimately also involves an archaeological site where precious works of art are being stolen, and a broad and varied cast of characters, almost any of whom might be the person Inspector Wang seeks. It's a great plot, intricate and beautifully structured, but the two most beguiling things about the book (and the rest of the series) are the characters and the setting.
The characters, beginning with Wang himself are nuanced individuals, real people whose differences make them easy to keep track of despite the unfamiliarity of Chinese names, which can be difficult for Western readers to remember. There isn't a flat sketch in the bunch: they all seem much deeper than the printed page.
The setting is riveting, not just because it's China, but because it's China at a specific moment, poised at the opening movement, so to speak of Deng Xiaoping's Communism-shattering economic liberalization, but not far removed from the brutal crushing of the protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Death of a Blue Lantern was written in 1994 and is probably set a year or two earlier. The Party, now widely ignored in China, still inspires (in the novel) a certain amount of dread; West's Beijing is full of people who have come from the countryside, but they are just a trickle compared to the hordes – the largest human migration in history – who have trekked from village to city in the past five or six years. Private businesses have sprung up, but there is not yet the preoccupation with becoming rich, nor is there the vast gulf between the have-alls and the have-nothings that scars present-day China. Some of the book's action takes place in the alleys and hutongs of old Beijing, the vast majority of which have now been swept aside, thousands of them destroyed for the Olympics.
Inspector Wang is a good man who believes in justice, and who is caught up in a system that is changing so fast that it threatens much of what he and those around him believe in. Matters of life and death, guilt and innocence, are immutable, but in West's novel, those issues are confronted in a world where virtually nothing else seems to be permanent. The China in these books is on the brink of the most profound short-term transformation of any nation in history.
Read Death of a Red Lantern. Read everything by Christopher West. He hasn't published a novel (to my knowledge) since The Third Messiah in 2000. If enough of us order his books, maybe some publisher will see what a writer of Christopher West's talent could do with the China of today, the China we all watched, openmouthed, for fourteen days in August.