Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Book Review: Two Decent Mystery Novels

I just finished reading two Tom Bradby’s mystery novels published by Anchor: The Master of Rain and The White Russian. It's not your typical breezy, beach-toting thrillers. For one thing, the protagonists-- both police officers--are looking for something beside murderers. But like other detectives, they are non-conformists living by their own rules—damning the consequences whatever they may be.

The Master of Rain, the weaker of the two books, takes place in 1920s Shanghai, which is occupied by European powers and ruled like a fiefdom. As a result, revolution is fomenting in the countryside, fueled by growing resentment among the native Chinese, and egged on by Bolsheviks in their midst. This an anti-colonial theme that Bradby cites frequently in his book and echoed by its main character, Richard Field, an idealistic, freshly-minted police detective with a troubled past, who is new to Shanghai and naïve to its corrupt workings. He is tasked with suppressing communist tendencies but is assigned to investigate some grisly murders of Russian prostitutes. Suspects include a prominent Chinese underworld figure, and even members of the upper echelons of the city elite, which includes his uncle.

The White Russian runs along similar themes but it’s a much better novel. This time the story takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia. The country is on the cusp of revolution, but Chief Detective Alexander Ruzsky must investigate several murders while dealing with serious family issues, including estranged relationships with his wife and father. Ruzsky, too, has burdened himself with the past, and the weight of which almost kills him.

There are no Hollywood endings with Bradby. Both Field and Ruzsky catch their murderers except their victory is bittersweet. To them, murderers are the product of a corrupt system, and it is this system they are fighting against. But it's too powerful for one man to take on alone; so they are forced to accept the status quo and choose exile instead, letting history take its course.

Bradby’s strength is that he renders his novels with such lushness and vividness. The problem with Bradby is that he overdoes it, sacrificing plot and character development in the process. The Master of Rain especially suffers from this: I simply don’t care for Field and the plot moves at a snail’s pace, and often it doesn’t move at all. The White Russian, on the other hand, is a vast improvement.

I recommend both books, but if you had to choose just one, read The White Russian.