Written by Christopher Bartley — The Bible, like Shakespeare, is always a good source of book titles. Here we have that glum fellow Job to thank. He said,”Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.”
Christopher Barley’s latest is set on the West Coast in the 1930s. Career criminal Ross Duncan is anything but naked. He is protected by a hard carapace of indifference, self-preservation and his infinite capacity for violence – and yet he is still able to shed a silent tear when an innocent Chinese girl is murdered. She is collateral damage in the pursuit of a fabled ancient chest sought by every crook within a 30 mile radius of San Francisco.
The mysterious chest contains an artefact which is said to possess unearthly powers, and Duncan himself has been hired to track it down. It seems that it is to feature in an antiques auction, under the nondescript name of Item Seventy Three. Duncan, however, working under the name Huddleston (one of his many pseudonyms) is not the only person looking for Item Seventy Three. There is the delightfully and inappropriately named Chinese gang boss Mr Josephine, and Jennifer McPhael – a woman who appears to be in despair at the disappearance of her husband, a man who imports and exports exotic items between America and the Far East. As the search for the locked chest intensifies the casualties increase and Duncan has to first understand, and then work within the parallel social universe of Chinatown.
As Duncan moves from opium dens to Fan Tan schools he meets people whose moral compass is so radically different from his own – despite his cynical view of the world – that the reader is just waiting for someone to lead him away from the carnage echoing the immortal line from Roman Polanski’s classic – “Forget it Jake – it’s Chinatown.” Unfortunately for himself and those who try to use him, Duncan is not the forgetting sort. He is a brutal man. He is also brutally honest. There is also a kind of brutal clarity in the way he looks at the world, whether it is the steep hills and neon lights of San Francisco, or people he deals with. Of a middle-aged Chinese businesswoman and gangland fixer he says, “An aura of ferocious and forsaken sexuality emanated from her eyes and mouth and her posture.”
The plot takes many a twist and turn as Duncan tries to tear off the masks of the people involved in the quest for the locked chest. What is the connection between the artifact, and those who worked as staff members at an exotic cliff-top mansion destroyed by fire many years earlier? Is the tearful Mrs McPhael as innocent and vulnerable as she makes out?
We reviewed the previous Ross Duncan novel Every Secret Thing in December 2014. I enjoyed Every Secret Thing, but with reservations. This book is in another league altogether. Its use of language, reader engagement, raw poetry and prevailing sense of courage amid a world of quiet despair make it – despite a clutch of irritating typos and proofing oversights – a firm contender for one of my books of 2015.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars