Written by Christopher West — Pageturners is a new imprint focusing on crime and thrillers, and releasing them as ebooks. The other day we reviewed Dead White by Welsh author Gwen Parrott which Pageturners has just released. Death of a Blue Lantern is a re-issue of a title released in the 1990s, but author Christopher West has done some substantial updating to his story for the new release.
Death of a Blue Lantern is the perfect kind of book to test the crime reading boundaries many readers set themselves. Set in China a couple of years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, there is something of the vibe of George Orwell’s 1984 here.
The story opens in Beijing, in 1991, and we meet Detective Inspector Bao Zheng of the Beijing Xing Zhen Ke (CID) on a rare night out. He is looking forward to getting away from the workaday and enjoying a night at the traditional opera, but there’s little chance of that when he finds a young man slumped in the back row. The unidentified male has been stabbed – and his death proves to be the first step on a very arduous road for this earnest police officer who has been lamenting the dullness of his desk job.
The name Bao Zheng is taken from early, traditional Chinese crime stories. However, this character has strictly modern inquiries to deal with. They lead him to the Triads, a deadly organisation that has come out of the shadows and is just returning to the ascendancy. But just as he is getting his teeth into the case it all gets wrapped up in a neat bow. Someone has confessed… so why doesn’t he believe them?
But then another case appears and he has little time to ponder. Priceless artifacts are disappearing from an important archaeological dig to the north of the city and being sold outside of the country for huge prices.
Once more, our dour detective finds himself on the outside, seemingly seeing the case in a very different light to that of his colleagues. But who is he to rock the boat? After all, Bao has spent the past few months in the working wilderness so he can’t afford to speak out of turn. And it doesn’t pay to put yourself in the spotlight in Communist China – best to keep your head down and work diligently.
It’s a very solitary Bao who sets out to find the truth – and it’s a very dangerous path he is treading as he ventures deeper and deeper into the capital’s underworld. The trouble is, the more he uncovers, the fewer people he seems to be able to trust.
Death of a Blue Lantern is the first of four books to feature Detective Inspector Bao Zheng – look out for more soon from Pageturners Crime – and it is a fine introduction to a character like no other I’ve encountered in crime fiction. The backdrop of a country still trying to cope with the aftermath of Tiananmen Square is also compelling and I learnt much about the era as I followed this story to its conclusion.
The setting – both time and place – may seem a little alien to fans of police procedurals who are more used to action and thrills these days, and the names might catch you out if you’re not used to reading Asian crime fiction. But it’s worth persevering, and trying to get used to them. If you do you’ll discover an engrossing story set during an interesting period in China’s history and socio-political development.
Read a brief history of Chinese crime fiction, by author Christopher West, here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars