Bad Traffic, by Simon Lewis
Little red book about a Chinese detective's adventures in London
Tuesday 29 January 2008
So much crime fiction set in China has appeared recently that this once-exotic setting has almost become a cliché. Simon Lewis reverses the usual scenario, giving us a detective from China hunting his quarry in Britain, encountering the Chinese inhabitants of these isles along the way, from rich club owners to those barely scraping along.
This spectrum also shows British faces in the mirror, and very ugly they can seem from the viewpoint of illegal Chinese immigrant workers. They are warned by the gang bosses who smuggle them that they must never speak to the authorities, who would visit fearful punishments on them. The bosses take out insurance in China by threatening relatives at home if there is any likelihood of the immigrants escaping. And they suffer all this for one pound a day – less deductions. We have in our midst a community of brutalised and bonded slaves.
This should make us angry, but can a writer make a good book out of moral indignation? Lewis does a brilliant job, creating a fast-moving narrative out of Inspector Jian's search for his daughter, to whom he has never paid much attention until he receives a desperate phone-call. A student at Leeds University, she has disappeared after working as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant and encountering an ugly customer. Jian hunts for her in an utterly strange country, full of rude and unclean customs, where he looks for help among the Mandarin-speaking community.
Jian's path crosses that of a contrasting character, Ding Ming, a gentle intellectual who has none of the policeman's wiliness and physical prowess, but, like him, is engaged in a frantic personal search. Ding Ming and his wife have arrived in Britain, lured by the promise of untold riches, but are separated by the gang-master. Both men are soon up against the psychopathic cruelty of the Chinese leader, Black Fort, and his vicious British henchmen.
Lewis's details of Chinese culture have the ring of truth. I particularly like the way in which Jian, tough and ingenious, resorts to the maxims of Chairman Mao to aid his quest: "When outnumbered, do not attack", or "Always keep moving and fight in territory that you choose for yourself". They punctuate a complex, exciting gun-battle. What political maxims might our own coppers resort to in an emergency? The Thoughts of Gordon Brown would hardly seem likely to get Knacker of the Yard safely out of the clutches of gangland criminals.
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