Tom Bradby's nimble crime novel The Master of Rain (Bantam Press; 479 pages) sinks readers into the sullied lives of China's colonial nabobs, leading us through the brothels, country clubs, crime labs, opium dens and dance halls of 1920s Shanghai—where "you can get heroin on room service in all the best hotels" and every building along the Bund is "a projection of American or European power."
Full of crisp, witty, His Girl Friday exchanges, we follow greenhorn gumshoe Richard Field, newly arrived in Shanghai from Yorkshire. His first assignment takes him to the scene of the above described sadistic murder of Lena Orlov, a down-and-out Russian princess who—like so many others in the city—had resorted to selling her only remaining commodity: herself. Field must find out why the fattest cats in town care about the brutal stabbing of this high-class whore.
Fresh out of police-force training, Field is soon packing a gun and living the thrilling life he left England to find. Field initially sweats through the Shanghai summer conspicuously out of place in his dead father's Sunday best ("meant to be worn in a Yorkshire winter, not in the stifling heat of the Far East"). Before long—with the help of an uncle in high places—he's in a tailor-made, lightweight suit, sipping his first glass of champagne and taking in his first burlesque show.
Bradby could hardly have found a better setting for his smoky police yarn than this chaotic entrepot. In 1926, Shanghai was run by a trinity of competing interests. There were separate law enforcement offices for the International Settlement and the French Concession and cooperation was strained at best. And in the Chinese section of the city—past the reach of the colonial powers—justice was summary execution at the will of the neighborhood triad boss. This lawlessness combined with the wealth pouring into Shanghai's bustling port encouraged young, ambitious men and women with flexible scruples to dream and scheme—sometimes to their own graves.
After two years writing in Hong Kong where he was Asian affairs correspondent for ITN and many months burrowing through London's Imperial War Museum archives and the memoirs of British Special Branch officers stationed within the fractious International Settlement, Bradby has done for Shanghai what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles—created a stylish and cool genre-fiction tapestry. Bradby also conjures a crime boss, Pockmark Lu, to hover above this seething cauldron. "A man who makes Al Capone look like a social worker," Lu controls an army of 20,000 foot soldiers (based on the real-life Green Gang), hundreds of call girls and boys, imports opium from India and Pakistan and is ruthless in his pursuit of communists, a label he gives to whomever he takes a disliking. After Field uncovers other cases of Russian women horribly stabbed to death—all connected to Lu—he begins to worry that Orlov's beautiful neighbor, Natasha Medvedev, may be next.
Bradby adroitly brings us right where we want to be: alongside a gun-toting twentysomething sidling up to the Shanghai Club's Long Bar. Clipped and believable, the dialogue is thankfully not laden with clichEd detective slang. And Bradby doesn't bore us by showing off all that historical research. Instead, he weaves together a vivid portrait of the times and a ripping good crime tale as he slowly unravels the characters' hidden secrets (and they all have them). As Field's ribald aunt puts it: "Everyone expects Shanghai to be decadent so we like to give the impression of debauchery." The Master of Rain goes her even one further, providing debauchery at its most elegant.