The Murder of Mr Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan

2 Mins read
The Murder of Mr Ma front cover

This light-hearted crime adventure is a book I’ve been looking forward to for some months for several good reasons. Although it is co-written with media executive John Shen Yen Nee, I was already a fan of SJ Rozan’s award-winning mysteries featuring New York City private detectives Bill Smith and Lydia Chin. The Murder of Mr Ma is vastly different from those, but equally entertaining.

In 1924 London, Judge Dee Ren Jie – an updated version of the fictional Tang Dynasty Judge Dee – arrives on the scene to investigate the murder of a World War I colleague from the Chinese Labour Corps. During the War, the British government recruited several hundred thousand workers from its colonies and elsewhere to perform non-military duties, in order to free up British soldiers for fighting. Some 96,000 of these workers were Chinese. Judge Dee’s war role was to mediate when a Chinese worker ran afoul of the military authorities, a job that made relations with some of the British officers difficult, notably a military named William Bard, now an inspector in London’s Metropolitan Police.

Soon after his arrival in London, Dee meets a young academic, Lao She, a man with little worldly experience but a good heart who acts as Dee’s guide and sounding board. Lao is based on a real-life novelist and playwright of the same name who wrote the satirical novel Mr Ma and Son in 1929. In a very real way, Lao is Watson to Dee’s Holmes, documenting their adventures and asking the pertinent question that lets Dee’s intellectual powers shine. The affectionate and sometimes prickly relationship between them is also reminiscent of the Holmes-Watson duo and provides some humour.

Although it is Lao who ostensibly has the greater knowledge of London and its Chinese community, it doesn’t take Dee long to find old friends and acquaintances. In particular, he encounters Sergeant Hoong Liang and Hoong’s grocery and apothecary shop is sort of an informal headquarters for the Dee and Lao. Sergeant Hoong’s father taught Dee a full menu of Chinese martial arts skills, something that comes in handy on numerous occasions throughout this story. But Dee also reaches out to knowledgeable characters in London’s underworld. Like Holmes, his circle includes people high and low.

Some of Dee’s acrobatics – grabbing a rain spout and swinging up to a roof or around a sidewalk pole are fanciful – and add to his larger-than life characterisation. Between his fighting skills, his gift for mimicry and disguise, and his flawless logic, he’s a real 20th century superhero. He does have one flaw, though. The pain of his wartime injuries was treated with opium, and he’s become addicted. On top of trying to find the murderer of his friends and persuade the London police – especially his old nemesis, Bard – to take the murder of the Chinese men seriously, he’s suffering the ill effects of drug withdrawal.

Lao, too, has complications in his life. He’s fallen in love with the Caucasian daughter of his landlady and foresees a rosy future for them, despite Dee’s cautions. Dee believes that prejudice against Chinese people will be too difficult to overcome and that his young friend is headed toward heartbreak. A view, unfortunately, that you’ll probably share.

The story moves at breakneck speed and involves a subculture of London life not usually dealt with in mystery stories, but full of atmosphere and (mostly) charming peculiarities. It is an exciting ride, and though some of the antics must be taken with a grain of salt, it remains great fun throughout.

I was looking forward to this story because the Judge Dee classics are among my very favourite stories of detection, and I was not disappointed.

You may also like Vera Wong’s Unsolicited Advice for Murderers by Jesse Sutanto.

Soho Crime / Titan Books

CFL Rating: 5 Stars

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