It’s funny what you can learn about the real world from fiction. I remember the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, and the BBC desperately putting a brave face on it. I’d only just graduated university and it never occured to me to wonder how the hell Britain had hung onto it so long. It was odd enough hanging onto the Falklands Islands. But at least possession of those had a few things in Britain’s favour, (i) a clear straight hop over the Atlantic Ocean by the Royal Navy, (ii) the adversary was Argentina, the most woppish of all South Americans, and (iii) there’s nothing on the Falklands worth having but sheep.
Hong Kong is another story. It’s a bustling economic hub with a beautiful deep harbour in a strategically important location, on the other side of the world, and the adversary is China. Big communist China. I read James Clavell’s Tai Pan in 2014, a fictionalisation of the creation of Hong Kong but it wasn’t until reading Skulduggery that I learned Britain had leased the mainland Kowloon area from China until 1997, and that’s the significance of the hand-over date. Naturally the slants didn’t renew the lease.
I imagine the millions of Hong Kong residents were rather nervous at the thought of losing British governance and rule of law, to be taken over by a murderous communist dictatorship who’d already killed sixty million of their own citizens. But, then again, I don’t much like Chinese people or European ex-pats, so if the whole island had been nuked I doubt I’d have given a fuck. I don’t even like Chinese food.
What I do like, however, are detective stories set in Chinatown. Maybe it was the Charlie Chan movies I watched on Saturday mornings as a kid. Perhaps it’s the Sax Rohmer Fu Manchu novels. Maybe Shenmue II on the Dreamcast. It may even have been John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China.
What a movie!
So when my brother gave me this fifth in William Marshall’s Yellowthread Street mystery series about a team of detectives in Hong Kong I was rubbing my hands in glee expecting to see long-moustached Chinese mandarins plotting world domination from underground opium dens tucked into backstreets of violent sailor’s wharves. It turned out to be nothing of the sort. The book was published in 1979 and is set around the same time. This is like The Bill but with slants and chop-suey.
I enjoyed it, mind. That’s the good thing about trying things out without bothering to read the back cover blurb. Your reading becomes like Forrest Gump opening a box of chocolates. So, to the story of Skulduggery.….. A skeleton tied to a makeshift raft is washed up in Hong Bay early one misty morning, discovered by a fisher-woman. The coroner asserts time of death as twenty years ago, murdered by blunt force trauma. Detective Chief Inspector Harry Feiffer is on the case, beginning first with an attempted identification. That same morning Detective Inspector Phillip John Auden is riding an elevator up and down an apartment block in an attempt to solve a spate of five muggings: all occurred in the elevator, the victims distracted and surprised when the doors opened at the third floor, despite the elevator being unable to stop there. Quite the puzzle. Lastly, Detective Inspector William Spencer is concealed in the storeroom of a Chinese money changer in stakeout for a band of three hold-up men, known as the Deaf And Dumb robbers, who are expected to hit that store. These three threads entwine with the mugging and hold-up cases providing leverage against leads in the murder case.
The murder mystery has shades of The Usual Suspects, especially the climax, but it’s a fairly standard pot-boiler. I managed to figure out the wheeze two chapters from the end and experienced the Gestalt satisfaction of pieces sliding into place, but also a diminished interest in closing out the book now that the suspense was neutralised. I wasn’t even able to pat myself on the back for being a smart boy, given how late I solved it. Kind of like getting a football score right in the 89th minute.
My main enjoyment from this book was seeing how mundane and normal the detective’s scenes were despite the somewhat alien (to me) setting of 1979 pre-handover Hong Kong. It’s still a bunch of daft lads in Her Majesty’s uniforms squabbling in the office and puzzling over clues. There were no poisoned lotus leaves, or slinky femme fatales, or plots of world domination. It was to Fu Manchu what Ackrington Stanley are to Real Madrid and enjoyable precisely because of its homeliness.
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