In 1910 Manchuria, a doctor is baffled by a deadly epidemic.
Shields (The Crimson Portrait, 2006, etc.) may be the first novelist to tackle the mysterious plague that overtook Manchuria early in the last century. In Kharbin, a railroad hub under the joint control of Czarist Russia and the Chinese empire, Russian physician Baron von Budberg, the city’s chief medical examiner,, is frustrated when two corpses found near the railway station are spirited away before he can ascertain the cause of death. Soon, such deaths and disappearances are mounting exponentially, both in the hovels of the Chinese laborers and the mansions of the privileged Russian sector. As frigid winter descends, it becomes clear to the Baron and his hospital colleagues that a highly infectious plague has gripped Kharbin. The malady presents initially with mild symptoms, racing pulse and elevated temperature, followed within hours by wracking cough, hemorrhage, and death. The chief difficulty here is that Shields has trouble meshing the disease-thriller aspect of this novel with her almost worshipful character study of the Baron, a humanist equally at home with his Chinese wife, Li Ju, calligraphy lessons, and tea ceremonies as he is with vodka and caviar. Many colorful—or so they are clearly intended—characters cross the Baron’s path, including his venal boss, Gen. Khorvat, and his confidants Andreev, a fixer and smuggler, and the dwarf Chang, a tea master. Although his loyalty to less raffish friends as well as his meditative calligraphy practice may lend gravitas to the Baron’s persona, he remains a cipher. The depiction of the epidemic hews closely to the known facts: the discarded, frozen bodies, the brutal quarantine methods, and the initially scattershot official response. Unfortunately, though, the narrative is nearly devoid of forward momentum. Rather than do battle, the Baron seems content to ruefully observe the plague’s inevitable advance. Potential conflicts, like the Baron’s incipient rivalry with a Dr. Wu, whom he views as a young upstart, are never developed.
A Manchurian Hot Zone this is not.