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Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007

Sun Piao: Shanghai's answer to Dirty Harry


Citizen One by Andy Oakes. London: Dedalus, 2007, 434 pp., £9.99 (paper)

Innocent young women are being horribly tortured and murdered. Next to die are the cops who investigate. Only someone with tremendous power and influence can kill with such impunity.

This second mystery set in Shanghai by British author Andy Oakes brings back Shanghai police senior inspector Sun Piao. Through his ex-wife's influence — she has left him to become the mistress of a powerful official — he gains release from Ankang, the nightmarish mental hospital where whistle-blowers and dissidents are confined.

Sun's stay at Ankang leaves him nearly shattered, and to add insult to injury, this incorruptible homicide cop is reassigned to the Shanghai vice squad, a do-nothing job where he gets no respect. Meet Shanghai's answer to Dirty Harry.

Accompanied by his sidekick, Yaobang, a Chinese Sancho Panza who doesn't mince words — most of them four-letter ones — Sun investigates one of the city's "commercial establishments."

"This place, this Ming Ren Club, what is it?" Sun asks the arrogant manager.

"Are you f**king serious?" the manager replies. "And you call yourself Vice Squad? A whorehouse, idiot policeman, that's what this is. The best, the most select whores in the city. We will need to educate you, Vice Squad."

It seems that the Public Security Bureau has an interest in half the establishments in Shanghai, and the People's Liberation Army owns the rest.

The hulking Yaobang, who is clearly from the old school, soon elicits the manager's cooperation.

"I am sorry, Comrade Manager," he apologizes. "I did not notice that your hand was in the waste disposal unit when I turned it on."

Oakes, winner of the European Crime and Mystery Award for his previous work, "Dragon's Eye," is a master of hyperbole, with a solid grasp of things Chinese.

"Citizen One" is a sprawling tale swinging between past and present, communism and capitalism, fantasy and reality, at turns wildly implausible and almost convincing.

The exaggerated, sometimes manic behavior of characters other than the main protagonist, the eccentricity of the villain and the grotesqueness of his crimes invite comparison with Australian writer William Marshall's "Yellowthread Street" mysteries, which are set in Hong Kong between 1975 and 1998.

Marshall's novels, however, were considerably briefer, running only about half the length of the work under review. If Oakes had been obliged to seek brevity, this book's length could have been considerably reduced, merely by deleting about half the profanity mouthed by Yaobang.



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