Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Friday, May 22, 2009

Review: Bad Traffic, Simon Lewis

Scribner, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-9353-9. 375 pages.

I'm late coming to Bad Traffic (see links to reviews below) but it was a happy day when I spotted it on the new book shelf in the public library. This is Simon Lewis' first Inspector Jian novel but we can hope that there will be others. Simon has written guides to China, Beijing, and Shanghai and lives in Asia half the year. I think this must account for the air of authenticity that comes with the Chinese characters in the book.

Inspector Jian is a Chinese police officer with a daughter, Wei Wei, attending Leeds University. Jian receives a frantic call from his daughter begging him to help her. The call is cut off. Thirty-two hours later Jian is in England, unable to speak a word of English, but determined to find his daughter. At Leeds, he is fortunate to find a student who speaks Mandarin but gets the bad news that his daughter hasn't attended classes for four months.

In spite of his inability to communicate, Jian's skills as an investigator lead him to a Chinese restaurant where he encounters a thug who calls himself Black Fort. Wei Wei worked at the restaurant and Jian knows instinctively that Black Fort has something to do with his daughter.

A parallel story begins with Ding Ming who, along with his wife, has been smuggled into England. The men and women are separated and Ding Ming is taken off to harvest shell fish from coastal mud flats. He is desperate to find out what has happened to his wife but is put off with empty promises that he will soon see her.

The plight of Ding Ming and the other illegal immigrants is the core around which the story is built and the meaning of the title. These people are looking for a better life but are exploited by the traffickers in human lives, the snakeheads. If they survive the trip, they still owe a crippling fee, one they may be able to pay off in twenty years.

Jian isn't a particularly likable character. He works in a world of corruption and is setting up a mistress in an apartment when his daughter calls for help. But his commitment to Wei Wei is absolute and he is willing to take himself to a foreign country, unable to communicate, and without official sanction to find her. There is no finesse in the way Jian deals with obstacles - direct, often violent, application of force.

Communication is a thread throughout the story. Jian speaks only Mandarin. A key figure in his investigation speaks only Cantonese. Ding Ming speaks both English and Mandarin. The scenes where Jian and Ding Ming are together in a forced and, on ding Ming's part, reluctant partnership are some of the most interesting in the book.

There is a mini-story around the middle of the novel that deals with the Chinese owner of a fish and chips diner in rural England and his thoroughly Anglicized daughter. She has her own problem to solve though it does intersect with the main story. It provides a lighter moment in a fairly grim story.

This a fast paced and well plotted story. The cultural insights as well as the action pulled me along and I'm left wanting another Inspector Jian story.

Highly recommended.

Other Reviews
Simon Lewis Talks about Bad Traffic on IT'S A CRIME!(OR A MYSTERY)
Reading Matters
Necessary Acts of Devotion
Euro Crime