This debut novel takes place in Shanghai in the 1920s, where a newly-arrived young British cop hopes to start his life over thanks to the sponsorship of his rich and politically connected uncle. Field is just getting used to the atmosphere in Shanghai–hot, corrupt, sordid, and exotic, drastic contrasts of rich and poor, with deadly but exciting currents running just under the surface—when he is assigned by the political unit to which he is attached to keep tabs on a rival police unit involved in criminal investigation. The heads of both units are vying for the post of police commissioner, and Field is an unwitting pawn in the battle. Money begins to accrue mysteriously in Field’s account, but he is not sure who is trying to buy his loyalty.
When Field gets in the middle of a homicide investigation involving the brutal mutilation/murders of several Russian prostitutes under the thumb of a powerful Chinese criminal warlord named Lu, he finds himself falling for one of Lu’s women, Natasha. Like the other women, Natasha had been the privileged child of wealthy white Russians until they were forced to flee the Bolshevik Revolution, and ended up in Shanghai without wealth or protection. Considered homeless refugees, the Russians slipped to the bottom of the Shanghai social order and their daughters fell under Lu’s control to survive. But someone is killing them and Field is determined to solve the mystery and protect Natasha.
Especially fascinating about this novel are the author’s insights into the role of the British colonial elites in carving out a gilded enclave for themselves in the midst of the hunger and poverty, the crime, drugs, filth and tragedy that is the real Shanghai. Our hero Field is bounced back and forth between the uncle and his ilk at their clubs and dinners, their elegant homes and offices, their gorgeous clothing, their perfumed wives, and the underbelly of society represented by Lu and his army of thousands, who among other things finances orphanages so he can have his pick of discardable playthings and who can order murders with the flick of a finger. It is when the idealistic Field discovers that his uncle’s circles are wholly dependent on Lu for their political power, that he becomes the target of both sides.
The action comes thick and fast, and the identity of the killer eludes Field’s—and thus the reader’s—grasp time and again. Field and Natasha have to decide whether to trust each other, Field has to decide who among his fellow cops he can trust, and who among his uncle’s friends he can rely on. Nothing is as it seems, and the good guys and bad change places several times as the story races to a terrifying conclusion. An exciting, well-written, well-paced and atmospheric thriller.