Raymond (Madness, 2015, etc.) explores the Chinese underworld in this mystery, the first in a series.
In 1928, Shanghai is far more brutish than the wildest of the West: “Wicked, brazen Shanghai, a fabulous place, peopled with swindlers, newly-minted millionaires, titled expatriates and their sad, restless wives, gangsters, beggars, and whores. Indeed, it was easy to make money here, and just as easy to lose a fortune.” Zephyr Davies, the Harvard-educated scion of a wealthy San Francisco family, has spent five years in the city, pursuing wealth and adventure. Just as he is beginning to lose his sense of purpose and contemplate a return to America, a routine favor for a friend—to locate and return a prized family artifact—quickly devolves into a murder mystery that requires Davies’ skills as a competent (if amateur) detective. The artifact in question is a staff known as “the clouded twilight,” an object whose importance to Chinese history is likened to that of Betsy Ross’ first American flag. The case involves Monica Marshall, a half-Chinese woman who refuses to speak; Elder Brother, an opium smuggler considered the most feared man in China; and Wong Gou Sing, the mischievous clerk of a curio shop whose fate is inextricably tied with Davies’. Raymond’s ornate prose beautifully enlivens the world of the novel, luxuriating in the details of its physical setting: “The remarkable motorcar had an open body made of tulip wood, and an impossibly long, polished aluminum hood that culminated in a radiator crowned by a graceful, flying stork.” The book reads more like a historical epic than a normal crime mystery, delighting in the uniqueness of each character and location rather than relying on the shorthand tropes of the genre. Raymond writes in that sweet spot that celebrates the exotic without fetishizing it, making it familiar without watering it down. With three more books in the series already published, the author has provided a captivating world in which new readers may lose themselves for a while.
A compelling murder tale set in a thoroughly realized historical Shanghai.