Book review: The Shanghai Murders by David Rotenberg



If The Shanghai Murders taught me one thing, it was this: David Rotenberg makes me rethink how I felt about author John Burdett. For those of you who didn't read my review of Bangkok Tattoo, I was faintly worried about the authenticity of Burdett's writing as an Asian character. Forget it. If Burdett's representation was a little fishy, Rotenberg is stranded somewhere on the biggest sea-trawler in the world.

The story

Police officer and all-round straight up guy Zhong Fong has problems. Not only has a cop from New Orleans been brutally and ritualistically murdered on his patch, but his dead wife's lover is back in Shanghai.

Zhong Fong and his trusted friend and partner Wang Jun get on the case. However, they seem to be thwarted at every turn; and it looks like this conspiracy goes right to the top. Then, another man is murdered in the same way, this time an African national whom everybody seemed to love.

In the meantime, Geoffrey Hyland the director has reopened some old wounds about his dead wife, not least being that Hyland thinks Fong murdered her and is having interviews with the police. Fong is inexplicably drawn to Hyland's rehearsals. Fong is also distracted by the widow of the New Orleans cop, who has come to lay her husband's ghost to rest and may just help catch the killer. Can Fong solve the mysteries, recover his memory of his wife's death, and catch the killer before he himself is killed or arrested? What chance does he have in this conspiracy?

The style

The Shanghai Murders is written in the third person limited from a variety of different points of view. So you see Fong doing his thing, the murderer doing his thing, Amanda the wife of the dead cop doing her thing, etcetera. So while this gives you an insight into what's happening in the story, the twists and omissions are nowhere near as clever as those that occur in, say, The Firm. The Shanghai Murders also doesn't have the read appeal. And while the story isn't deathly boring or anything, it is in places both too far-fetched and too cliched. Furthermore, Rotenberg went completely overboard in his use of the theatre and acting techniques and analogies from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. These additions overly complicated the overly torturous plot and frankly just looked like showing off.

I think my main gripe with this novel was the characterisation, specifically with the Chinese characters and Amanda. The Chinese characters just weren't Chinese. They had no authenticity, they didn't speak right, move right, look right. They reminded me of those old movies where the western actors would wear a wig and pull their eyes at the corners and lo and behold be transformed into a laughable approximation of and Asian. I think for this story to have worked in this way, Rotenberg would have had to write from the point of view of a visiting Westerner. As it is, the characterisation completely fell over.

As for Amanda, two main issues: Too slutty for no good reason. Why? What purpose did it serve? None, other than trying to make her sound sexual. What did this accomplish in the grand scheme of things? Some embarrassing to read ad nauseum memories of sexual dalliances and the impression that Amanda digs men. And isn't that just integral to the story? Secondly, Rotenburg tries to insert little snippets of Amanda's writing, mainly as letters to her sister, with the impression being that Amanda used to "write". Now from the examples of Amanda's work that were given, Amanda has little in the way of actual skill and talent. Generally when an author decides to showcase his work by inserting "the writer" character's stuff in his book, he tries to make it good... well, that's what I thought anyway. On the other hand, Amanda's character was very uncomfortable and awkward, so maybe he had difficulty characterising her and therefore writing on her behalf.

Who is this book for?

Hmmmm. Someone with nothing else to read.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Do yourself a favour and read Bangkok Tattoo. Same kind of general themes, way more fun and authentic feeling.



In short

Title: The Shanghai Murders
Author: David Rotenberg
Publisher: McArthur and Company
ISBN: 1552782662
Year published: 1998
Pages: 315
Genre(s): mystery, crime fiction