Shanghaied, Eric Stone, Bleak House Books, Hardcover $24.95; Paperback $14.95.
"I love Chinese food. But sometimes China doesn't do much for my appetite." - Ray Sharp
Though this novel might at the beginning be categorized along with books by writers like Barry Eisler, Brent Ghelfi and maybe even Lee Child, half way through Stone turns his action story on its ear in an entirely unexpected way. This is the fourth book in a series featuring detective Ray Sharp, a Hong Kong based investigator who does "due diligence" investigations with his partner, the Chinese-Mexican dwarf, Wen Lei Yue. As the story opens Ray and Lei are looking into a missing monk. What they can't decide is if the monk is just having a little illicit fun or if the monk is the money man for his well endowed monastery, in which case his disappearance is more worrisome.
The missing monk, however, is merely the kick off for a non stop action and adventure story through the streets of Hong Kong and eventually Shanghai. Stone is very adept at weaving the feel of the city into the narrative, so while you're breathlessly following Ray and Lei on their quest, you're also absorbing some details of life in Hong Kong. The book is set slightly in the past—on the day after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong by the British back to the Chinese. This is a place, the reader begins to feel, where anything might happen.
The complicated permutations of the plot eventually lead Ray and Lei to a shady banker, possible Triad involvement, and the workings of both slave labor and prostitution. The latter seems ubiquitous, and Ray—to his ultimate detriment—has a weakness for what his friend Lei calls putas. The complicated interweaving of his partner's life and his, their mutual sense of right and wrong, and their dedication to uncovering the truth naturally lead them into a lot of trouble.
Most noteworthy is Lei's growing involvement with a prostitute nicknamed "Big Breasted Korean Housewife", someone who Ray has uncovered as an unlikely lead. When the monk is discovered murdered (not a surprise, really) the "Korean Housewife" is a big help to both partners. Unexpected to me was the shift in narrative about half way through the book from Ray to Lei, and the gruesome depiction of her re-addiction to heroin. To me this was the strongest, and most disturbing, part of the novel.
Also integral to the plot is a depiction of a factory in Shanghai where the "workers" have been brought in from the country on the promise of fantastic (to them) wages, and where they end up living as virtual slaves, indentured to the factory owners who use them more or less like animals. Also highlighted are the way so called "snakeheads" are paid a fantastic fee to bring human cargo across the ocean in metal containers (Jeffrey Deaver covers this same horrible topic in his excellent The Stone Monkey) on a similar promise, of better wages in Mexico or the U.S.
In the end, though, Stone's focus isn't on the society as a whole or even on the non stop action of the plot, but on the very human feelings and reactions of both Ray and Lei. If you're like me these are characters that you'll be invested in by the time you close the covers of the book—and you'll want to know more. This is a well written and compelling book, and if you are at all interested in this area of the world, it's well worth a look.
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