I have a friend we'll call Myron. He's a great guy, quiet, who owns
a comic book store. He also has a black belt in tai kwon do. A few
years ago he was in his store minding his own business when a trio
of gentlemen came in and tried to rob him. When the dust settled a
few seconds later the would-be thugs were on the ground in various
states of disrepair, and Myron was calling 911 to come and collect
them. He told me later that he was pretty sure the guys were
amateurs since they had made so many mistakes while attacking him.
In fact, Myron said, he had so many options for taking them down
that it almost took him too long to decide which one to use.
Reading THE MASTER OF RAIN by Tom Bradby reminded me of that
incident. Bradby's tale succeeds on so many levels that it's
difficult to pigeonhole this novel in any other genre other than
"incredible." It is by turns a historical novel, a romance, a
thriller, and a mystery. It is superlative in all of those aspects,
THE MASTER OF RAIN is set in Shanghai in the mid-1920s. There is a
roiling sense of unease in the city, a city that has many masters,
foreign and domestic. There are the Americans, the British, the
French, a multinational foreign conglomerate of corporations, and
oh yeah, the Chinese. There is also a large group of Russian
immigrants, some fleeing the chaos and destruction wrought by the
Communist revolution, others imported for the purpose of fomenting
a similar revolution in China. There is a quasi-official Chinese
government, and there is the criminal as well --- and it is the
criminal element that is the de facto ruling entity in Shanghai.
The criminal warlord in Shanghai, and accordingly the most powerful
man in the city, is Lu Huang. Nothing happens in the city without
his blessing. It is into this caldron that Richard Field is
Field is a British policeman who is new to the international police
force. It is said that everyone who comes to Shanghai does so for
the purpose of becoming rich or running. Field is running from his
past life, seeking to escape not justice but memories. Any hope he
had of achieving solace is dashed when he arrives at a brutal crime
scene in which a young Russian woman has been found brutally
murdered. The death of this young woman, a prostitute, is of little
concern to the police force. Field, haunted by the violence of the
act as well as by Natasha Medvedov, the woman's next door neighbor,
presses his investigation. He soon discovers that there have been
other victims and that they are all linked by their employment to
Lu. He also finds that there are those, even on his own police
force, who do not want the murders investigated or solved. Field
becomes obsessed with Medvedov, and with the spiral of trickery,
deceit, and perversion that he is sucked into as he presses
doggedly onward with his investigation. He soon comes to believe
that there is no one --- absolutely no one --- that he can trust.
Nothing is as it seems in Shanghai.
Bradby, who is a foreign correspondent for ITN, the British
television network, did yeoman's work in researching historical
records and cultural accounts of life in Shanghai in the 1920s.
Research alone, however, could not create a work of this stature.
This is a strong, confident novel, one that never missteps, never
falters. It is a novel to be savored slowly and enjoyed at all of
its many levels.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011