Book Reviews: Onion Street by Reed Farrel Coleman, Enigma of China by Qiu Xiaolong, and Evil and the Mask by Fuminori Nakamura

Onion StreetOnion Street
Reed Farrel Coleman
Tyrus Books, May 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4405-3945-9

[The book is also available in trade paperback, ISBN 978-1-4405-3946-6]

After seven novels in the Moe Prager mystery series, a retrospective is in order, especially after Moe has undergone surgery and chemotherapy for stomach cancer.  The occasion follows the funeral of a boyhood (and best) friend, after which his daughter, visiting from Vermont, asks him why he became a cop, and what follows is a story by itself.

Moe looks back to events in 1968 when he and his friends were attending Brooklyn College.  The Vietnam War was raging, radicalism was in the air, and Moe was at loose ends.  One night his girlfriend is found in a coma on the street, apparently having been viciously beaten, and suddenly Moe has a mission: to find the man who beat her up, taking him on a journey that later led him to become a policeman and PI.

It is a hard-boiled tale involving all the worst elements of the period, bomb-throwing radicals, dope pushers, rotten cops and the like.  It also is a deep moral story involving right and wrong.  The humor of past Moe Prager novels is missing from Onion Street, but that is completely understandable: it is not a light-hearted subject with deaths strewn along the way.  And some of Moe’s various actions can be questioned, while his intentions are always honorable.  All in all, it is a very human saga, and we get to know Moe a lot better in a serious way.  Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, September 2013.


Enigma of ChinaEnigma of China
Qiu Xiaolong
Minotaur Books, June 2013
ISBN: 978-1-250-02580-7

Chief Inspector Chen faces more than a riddle in this latest chronicle of life in Shanghai.  He has to weigh his role as a cop and party official against the truth.  As a result of the supposed suicide of the head of the Shanghai Housing Development Committee following his exposure of massive corruption, Chen is asked to act as a consultant in the police investigation.  The premise is that the result would be a verdict of suicide, burying the case, and Chen’s “endorsement” would seal it, he being known as an incorruptible cop.

The case, however, develops into far more than what the authorities wish, especially when the detective in charge of the case leans toward a murder charge.  The corrupt practices came to light from exposure over the internet, giving the author license to look at the conflict between the loosening of Chinese “democracy” and the conflict with the needs of the one-party system to “harmonize” political crimes.

In a way, the novel takes place on three levels.  First, it is a straightforward police procedural.  Then, as in all of the books in the series, it is a serious look at present-day China.  Lastly, there is some degree of romantic interest, introducing a female journalist who not only provides Chen with much assistance in his investigation, but a sexual attraction as well (although, at least to this point, unconsummated).  The novel follows the similar pattern of including snippets of Chinese poetry along the way to make points.  The one negative comment concerning the novel is the inconclusive ending. But, perhaps, that is to be resolved, along with Chen’s love life, in a future volume.


Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2013.


Evil and the MaskEvil and the Mask
Fuminori Nakamura
Soho Crime, June 2013
ISBN: 978-1-616-95212-9

In this author’s second novel to be excellently translated into English, a story in an extremely different genre takes the reader into the realm of crime noir of an unusual nature.  It tells the story of an 11-year-old boy whose father informs him that he is to be trained to become a “cancer” on the world, creating havoc and misery wherever he goes.  The family, it seems, has developed a long line of such evil, each generation spawning one such monster.

So the training begins, and a young girl is brought in to become a companion to the boy. They fall in love, part of the father’s plan to subject the boy to “hell” at some future date.  Instead the boy, three years later, murders his father and consequently ends up just as he might have had the original plan come to fruition.  He spends his life thereafter trying to hide from the very fact that he has committed the ultimate crime and, at the same time, trying to protect the girl from evil.

The prose is as simple and straightforward as the tale is twisted.  It is a far different effort from this author’s previous novel, The Thief, which also described an antihero, albeit of a different stripe.  This book is a complicated crime novel with deep psychological undertones into the minds of warped persons.  It is told in the first person by the protagonist as he endures the horrors to which he is subjected, yet demonstrating his efforts to overcome the onus of what he has done and his background.  Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2013.

Book Review: The Risk Agent by Ridley Pearson

The Risk Agent
Ridley Pearson
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, June 2012
ISBN 9780399158834

A starship captain once said, “Risk is our business” in reference to why his organization explored space. For the Rutherford Risk company, it’s why they venture into China illegally. In Ridley Pearson‘s newest novel, an American souvenir hunter and a Chinese forensic accountant are trying to rescue kidnapped construction employees, but run into more trouble than expected.

John Knox and Grace Chu are hired by the Rutherford Risk company to track down Lu Hao and Clete Danner who were kidnapped by unknown forces. Knox and Chu quickly realize that Hao’s financial reports are key to everything: why the kidnapping occurred, who orchestrated it, and possibly the solution to saving them. However, Knox and Chu aren’t the only ones interested in Hao and his important numbers. Chinese State Police, a group of Mongolians, and a rival construction CEO are all involved. Knox and Chu constantly stay on the run, wanted by the police, and find more trouble when another agent of Rutherford Risk is hospitalized. The secret they are after is deeper than anyone realized.

This story takes place in Shanghai and Pearson does an excellent job of showing the Chinese culture both good and bad. This is a complicated story with a lot of connections and mysteries to be solved. The energy and action amp up the closer it comes to the date of the ransom payment and then…takes off in the aftermath. Get in on the ground floor of a brand new series from one of the best thriller writers in the business.

Reviewed by Stephen L. Brayton, July 2012.
Author of Night Shadows and Beta.

Book Review: Years of Red Dust by Qiu Xiaolong

Years of Red Dust
Qiu Xiaolong
St. Martin’s Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-312-62809-3

The author of the Inspector Chen series, which usually portrayed incisive pictures of Chinese culture and politics, turns his attention to another form of literature:  these short stories which mirror the changes in the country from 1949 and the beginning of the Communist takeover from the defeated Nationalists to the present day.

Each chapter begins with a brief recap of that year’s events as a prelude to a tale of one or more persons living in Red Dust Lane. Each is set in a single year, and the stories reflect the evolution of the country through the various upheavals during the reign of Mao through the development of the quasi-market economy now in existence.

Written with the customary poignancy and sensitivity that Qui Xiaolong has exhibited in previous novels, filled with quotations from classic Chinese literature and history, Confucius sayings and ancient proverbs, the tales are not only engaging but are redolent of the sights and sounds of Shanghai.  They bring home to the reader how the past changing attitudes and politics affected people more cogently than a dry history text recounting the Red Guards or sending “educated” teenagers to the countryside to live as peasants.

The book is well worth reading and is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, December 2010.