Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #63: The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby

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.

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loulamac’s #CBR5 review #8: The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant

Wettest County

I had high hopes for this book. I haven’t seen Lawless (despite being so in love with Tom Hardy it keeps me awake at night), but liked the thought of a true story about boot-legging brothers during the prohibition, and it was in the Kindle spring sale. Sadly, I was to be disappointed. I knew I was in trouble straight away when I saw that this was the kind of book that’s too edgy to use speech marks.

The boot-legging Bondurants are three brothers trying to earn a living running liquor in 1920s and 30s Virginia. The third person narrative shifts between their story from 1928 onwards, and the experience of (real-life) writer Sherwood Anderson as he tries to put meat to the bones of the Bondurant legend in 1934. This is a confusing and unnecessary device, which isn’t helped by the lack of dating of some chapters. I imagine it was supposed to build some kind of tension, putting the brothers on a collision course with corrupt law enforcement. It really doesn’t work.

The brothers are one-dimensional characters at best. Jack is a coward who shies away from bloody work on their father’s farm, while the intense Forrest plays with carvings his grandfather made of mutilated Confederate soldiers. They’re hard-drinking tough men, who of course have fantastically beautiful women in love with them. Forrest has his throat cut, is shot and crushed in a logging accident and still he refuses to die, like a hill billy Rasputin.

The writing is clumsy and awkward. At one point Bondurant Senior is described as ‘grinning through his beard’ twice in three pages, at another the tense shifts from present to past in the course of one sentence. The most frustrating thing is that when Bondurant writes in his own voice in the Author’s Note, his style is simple and direct. When he’s not trying (and failing) to be John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy’s bastard love child, his voice is alright. It’s a shame he tried so hard. At one point in the novel, a character’s attention starts to wander, I can only sympathise.

loulamac’s #CBR5 review #7: The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell

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The Folded Leaf tells the story of two boys growing up together in 1920s Chicago. Lymie is successful at school but quiet, shy and physically weak. Spud, on the other hand, is everything Lymie isn’t. Confident and detached, he more than makes up for his struggles in class with his athletic prowess. He’s never met a boy he can’t best in a fight, and more to the point he’s not scared to start one. From the moment their paths cross at a swimming class at school, Lymie is Spud’s devoted acolyte. As the novel charts their progress through high school to university, Lymie’s feelings for Spud deepen into an unnamed love, which manifests itself as an inseparable friendship. When Lymie introduces Spud to Sally Forbes and the two fall in love, almost unbearable strains are placed upon their relationship.

As a modern-day reader, it’s impossible to not to comment on the homo-erotic element of the story, although I understand this wasn’t a consideration when the book was published. While it is possible to read their friendship as just that, the worshipful and physical sides of Lymie and Spud’s relationship are undeniable. Part of Lymie’s routine is watching Spud work out in the college gym, patiently waiting to untie his gloves and unwrap his hands. This is a religious experience for him. They sleep together in their student house, ostensibly to save money and keep warm, but when Spud returns from an absence: ‘Lymie lay back on the wave of happiness and was supported by it. The bed had grown warm all around him. Spud’s breathing deepened and became slower…Lymie, stretched out beside him, wished that it were possible to die, with this fullness in his heart for which there were no words and couldn’t ever be.’

Maxwell’s writing is intelligent, thoughtful and accomplished. His descriptions of the insecurities and obsessions that plague the two young men are funny and pathetic by turns. And while Lymie and Spud are the archetypal Nerd and Jock, their characters never descend into cliché. Spud’s inner life is every bit as rich and complicated as Lymie’s, and part of the tragedy of the book is that as the reader you’re privy to thoughts and feelings you are desperate for them to share with each other. They never do.

The sacrifices Lymie makes in order to make Spud happy, the unquestioning devotion with which he accepts Spuds moods and the unconditional support he gives are revealed to the reader with heart-breaking simplicity. If you have ever been in the grips of an unrequited love, had a crush from afar, or loved and been let down by a friend, this book will make you smile and make you cry. It’s glorious.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #16 – The Mystery of the Hidden Room by Marion Harvey

I do love my 1920s mysteries. This was yet another Kindle freebie, written around the time of Agatha Christie and all of the rest were being written. It takes place in New York City, which makes a nice change from all the English countryside cozies.

Our hero is summoned late at night to his ex-fiancee’s mansion – the one she shares with her awful husband. The awful husband’s amanuensis has been spying on the missus, and actually pieced together a ripped up letter she wrote to the ex-fiancee in a fit of pique. She never meant to send it, and was stuck with the awful husband for nasty family reasons.

The missus tells our hero that the awful husband plans to ruin him with the reconstructed letter, so he sends her into the office to retrieve the letter. She goes, and while she’s gone, he hears a gunshot. He runs to the office – the missus has dropped something heavy, and the awful husband is dead in his chair. So, clear case, right? Nope. Our hero decides to investigate himself, since the cops are sure it was the missus. His butler happens to also work with New York’s own Sherlock Holmes, Graydon McKelvie. Handy coincidence, that. They launch their own investigation, and that’s when the fun starts.

As you can tell by the title, a hidden room is involved. There are lots of twists and turns, although once you get into the story, the obvious whodunnit is whodiddit. The hows and the whys are where the mystery lies. It’s a fun book, and if you like Christie, or Sherlock Holmes, or any of those type of stories, you will enjoy this book.