Column: Mysterious Musings

Reviews of "Shanghaied" and "Last Known Address"
Robin Agnew

Robin Agnew

[Editor's note: Robin Agnew and her husband Jamie own Aunt Agatha's mystery bookstore in Ann Arbor. She also helps run the annual Kerrytown BookFest.] 

“Shanghaied” by 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, halfway through Eric 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 as 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 halfway 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 book, “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.

Editor’s note: Author Eric Stone will be giving a presentation at Aunt Agatha’s on Saturday, July 11 at 3 p.m. He’ll discuss his books, set in modern Shanghai where he worked as a journalist. 

“Last Known Address” by Theresa Schwegel (Minotaur Books, $24.99)

Theresa Schwegel is that rare writer who embraces mystery as a genre – the police novel in particular – and also transcends it. The eye for human behavior she brings to her books is preternaturally precocious. Schwegel is a young woman, but all of human behavior seems like an open book to her.  A simple description of a single girl dressing to go out – “I’m single. Leg is important.” – says a lot without saying more than it needs to. You get the picture.

Schwegel’s new novel is the chilling story of a serial rapist, and she uses her trademark first person/present tense to tell the rape victim’s stories from their point of view. It’s a scary, effective, and ultimately moving technique. The cop in charge of the investigation, Sloan Pearson, is a youngish woman whose personal life is a mess, whose partner lets things slide, and who herself has the kind of relentless eye for detail all good cops seem to have. Unfortunately, in this case her eye for detail gets her into trouble.

The subtext of the book – and it’s not really too “sub” – is the treatment of women. While rape victims are an obvious illustration (and Schwegel takes you through a rape exam with an insensitive male doctor), less obvious and less straightforward are the ways Sloane herself makes her way through the world, and the way she’s treated by all the men around her. She’s even slotted herself – much in part to her childhood – as the caretaker to her father, her boyfriend, and even, to a degree, her partner.

Mixed into this is the atmosphere at work – the jokiness and the dismissal of women as an entirety – and the interactions she has with the men around her sometimes make her job seem almost unbearable. Here Schwegel is entering territory tread by other authors like Lillian O’Donnell, Barbara D’Amato and Leslie Glass, who all wrote about female cops in a male world. Schwegel seems to bring the extra subtlety of all human behavior into her observations, which seem less like observations and more like a documentary or primer on human behavior written by a master observer.

The plot is terrific too, as Schwegel folds a seemingly unrelated string of rapes into a high tension narrative that takes in, very Chicago like, the world of political corruption that surrounds her city and her job. There’s also the business of Sloan’s personal life, which is a mess, and which Schwegel explicates in a straightforward fashion, holding back details until the right moment. This is a gifted writer who combines narrative skill, character development and an ability to take in the entire surroundings of her character (also known as setting) with panache and seeming ease. Even better, the book leaves you thinking. This writer is fast becoming one of the crown jewels of mystery fiction.