Today’s read was recommended by frequent blog commenter, Jonathan. It is very easy for me to get lost in the myriad of books published before 1960, so it is helpful to have someone occasionally draw my attention to something written in the 21st century.
The story opens in 1924 with Lieutenant Eric Peterkin entering his London club, the Britannia. Whilst the outside world is changing in numerous ways from social mores to architecture, ever keen to keep looking ahead rather than back to the painful past, this club in some ways has a more old-world and insular feel to it. Yet its’ sanctuary-like status is soon to be disrupted… Peterkin, now out of the army, works as a reader for a publishing firm, mainly ploughing his way through various lurid mystery novels. Yet he does not get much chance to read this latest literary effort, as he is drawn into referring a bet between Mortimer Wolfe and Edward Aldershott, the former claiming he can remove an object from the newest member’s (Albert Benson) safety deposit box from within the highly secure club vault. It is as referee that Peterkin is shown by Benson what items are in the box: a photograph, a hypodermic kit, surgical scissors and a medical file for a Horatio Parker. He says these items can help right a wrong from the past. However he never gets to explain any more as next morning when the bet participants go to verify that the item Wolfe retrieved is from the box, they find Benson dead inside the vault, stabbed in the neck. Was Wolfe the guilty party? Or was he framed? Yet the case deepens when the Inspector who comes to take charge of the case is named… Horatio Parker. Peterkin is determined to find out what this old wrong was, believing the righting of it will reveal the murderer of Benson. Nevertheless the cards are stacked against him, not just because there are a lot of fellow officers with many a thing to hide, but his own half Chinese heritage means he has to deal with more than minor snubs. It could in fact cost him every he values, even his life…
This is the sort of book, which quickly makes you forget to write notes down, whilst reading, as you are too busy trying it to find out what happens next. High praise indeed, but a little awkward when you’re a blogger. Thankfully I did manage to jot down a few things, in between my huge enjoyment of it…
Huang delivers an intricate plot, which provides its reader with an early murder in the present, before taking Peterkin’s investigation into the past. It is to Huang’s credit that he makes full use of the cold case angle of the story, in particular how he links it back to the current day murder and the cast of suspects, as well as how Peterkin’s investigation into the past mystery causes other events to happen. The author equally does a strong job at tackling the who, the why and the how of case in equal measure and the release of information to solve the mystery is well controlled by having Peterkin uncover things from varied sources and through persistence, as many of those around him are almost aggressively keen to stall his investigation permanently. The reader gets to handle a number of different types of clues from word play, to behavioural based ones. Overall I would say Huang keeps the reader guessing as to who the guilty party is, as the final solution has an onion layering effect, which casts suspicion widely and masks the truth underneath it all.
I would also say that the writer has a delightful turn of phrase, as well as a strong line in understated humour, even when it is about difficult subject matters. Some of my favourite lines of description centre on the character of Wolfe, whose personality is aptly and originally summed up in lines such as:
‘The man went through his valets as a compulsive smoker went through matchsticks: burning them out in quick succession and discarding them with nary a thought.’
‘if his upper lip were any stiffer, he’d need surgery to eat his dinner.’
Peterkin’s dual nationality, is equally explored in a refreshing way, with some of that wry humour aimed at the ‘yellow peril’ depictions of Chinese people in the early 1920s. When asked to review The Menacing Mandarin, the narrative writes: ‘Eric really, really hoped it was about oranges.’ In addition, Peterkin interestingly struggles at times to identify with his Chinese heritage, his mother having died when he was young. He is not able to speak Chinese effectively and this adds to an upending scene later on in the book, which turns a lot of assumptions on its head. One passage which remained with me that expresses Peterkin’s ambiguous feelings towards being Chinese is:
‘His dreams had been filled with Chinese antiques: terracotta warriors, porcelain urns, scrolls painted with yellow-robed monkeys wielding iron cudgels. These images felt to him both familiar and alien, like a well-loved book written in another language.’
Yet unfortunately for him, those around him, frequently can only see and often stereotypically exaggerate his Chinese background, assuming his identification with this body of people, which he doesn’t entirely feel he has.
The issue of private murder, against a background of the WW1 aftermath is understandably an important part of this book and one which Huang grounds well at the start of the tale, particularly in the way he has Peterkin articulate the differences between death in the trenches and death on the page. Murder outside of a war context, one such as in a mystery novel, ‘puts a sort of meaning on death, which makes it manageable, like a puzzle to be solved rather than a thing you just endure.’ The concept of ‘leav[ing] something of your humanity behind in a murder,’ (a phrase with more than one meaning), is also one which stuck in my head and one which I returned to having finished the book, as the final solution in some ways returns full circle to it. It was also interesting to see Peterkin as a character who suffers from episodes of painful and immersive flashbacks to the war, yet who is someone who is highly uncomfortable with the notion of shell shock and war neuroses, especially in terms of such labels being given to himself. Writing mysteries set in the 1920s, with characters suffering from the effects of WW1 is not new in the literature, but I think it is a theme Huang explores in a way which is off the beaten track and like the Puzzle Doctor, I look forward to reading Huang’s next book. Hopefully we won’t have to wait too long!
Calendar of Crime: July (6) Original Publication Month