Shanghai between the world wars provides the backdrop for a photographer embroiled in an underworld of gangsters, gunrunners, Communist insurgents, and two bewitching women.
The first novel by Bai translated into English centers on Hsueh, a photojournalist of French-Chinese extraction who’s arriving in Shanghai with his lover, Therese, an arms dealer. An army officer on the boat is assassinated after it docks, and his wife, Leng, mysteriously disappears. Much of the story takes place in the French-administered pocket of the city, which is more lawless than those run by the British, Americans, or Chinese, but the local police still want to get to the bottom of the killing, and Hsueh is soon roped in to report on Therese’s dealings and Leng’s connection to a Communist cell. “Hsueh never let himself think too hard about ethics, consequences, the meaning of life, things like that,” Bai writes of the novel’s hero—a line that, like many in this story, strives for noirish flintiness but largely feels inert, plodding, and overly convoluted. Over the course of the two months depicted in the novel, Hsueh connects romantically with both Therese and Leng while uncovering plots to smuggle machine guns and rob banks, but all this talk of sex and violence lacks much energy, and what’s meant to be comic banter between Hsueh and the French officers often curdles. Some of the novel’s flaws may be matters of translation—sentences are larded with clichés, non sequiturs (“the sky was dream bright”), or just plain stiff phrasing (“he felt as though he had been caught between the cogwheels of two sophisticated killing machines”). But Bai has written a story so tangled that its concluding explosions inevitably have all the force of a pop gun.
A strained historical crime yarn whose central gumshoe is much too flat-footed.