Shanghai, 1935 – a Japanese sailor is gunned down in the busy streets, escalating tensions between China and Japan. Doug Bainbridge, an officer in the ONI – the US Office of Naval Intelligence – is tasked to investigate. Joined by his friends, Doug is sucked into a whirlwind of intrigue, double-dealing, and espionage.
Assassin’s Hood by Garrett Hutson is the sequel to The Jade Dragon, a murder mystery set also set in 1935 Shanghai. Doug is now a full-time ONI officer, and is joined by his journalist pal – Jonesy, whose thirst for scoops proves invaluable, and Lucy, his girlfriend from high society. There is a little class conflict between them – at one point Jonesy accuses Doug of voting for Herbert Hoover – but the three form a trio that remains firm throughout the book.
Early on, Doug is sent to Hong Kong on a lead and learns of connections between the assassinated Japanese and organized crime. Not the notorious Green Gang, but the less well-known Axe Gang. Although hailing from Southern China, the Axe Gang operated in Shanghai as well and – true to their name – used axes to commit murder. Although the assassins wear hoods – ala the title – Doug is able to establish a connection. But who hired them?
The Communists? The Nationalists? The Japanese themselves? All possible candidates. Complicating matters is the sinister presence of Kawakami, a Japanese secret agent from the first book. Also thrown into the cloak and dagger setting are Ming Lin-wen, a mysterious society woman, and Wong Mei-ling, Doug’s friend with connections to the underground Chinese Communists. Meanwhile, more Japanese keep dying – not just sailors, but also businessmen. Tensions escalate to a fever pitch until the Japanese Special Naval Land Forces – the Imperial Marines – declare martial law in their section of Shanghai – Hongkew – and Doug and Wong Mei-ling find themselves under arrest.
There is real attention to detail in Assassin’s Hood that you don’t get from non-fiction history books. For example, the book references the Taminato Incident of 1936, in which Japanese sailors were assassinated. This is barely ever mentioned in most accounts of this era, so I was surprised to find it laid out here. While this is not a “page-turning” thriller, the intrigue and mystery are thick enough to keep you reading. The characters are very strong, like Lucy’s relationship with Doug, which feel like something you’d watch in a Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn movie.
I mentioned before how the first book reminded me of the Mr. Moto novel series from the 1930s, and that is even more true of Assassin’s Hood. However, Hutson weaves well-researched historical details into a well-plotted narrative, making for quality historical fiction. Whereas the first book was more mystery-centric, Assassin’s Hood is more intrigue-centric. Politics was at play in both, but the stakes are raised here as the world marches towards war.
Garrett Hutson Interview
1) When writing The Jade Dragon, did you always have a sequel in mind?
Yes, I envisioned it as the start of a series–but at the time, I imagined the second book would take place during the 1937 Japanese invasion. When doing my background historical research, however, I came across the Taminato Incident in September 1936, which led to three days of Japanese marines occupying the Hongkou district in northern Shanghai. I soon discovered that it was just the latest in a string of assassinations of Japanese nationals in Shanghai between July and September of 1936, plus one previously in November 1935, and I knew that would make a great background to a mystery Doug Bainbridge would have to solve. Especially given the complex political situation, it was too good to pass up.
It was absolutely the right decision to delay my original idea for book 2 to book 3 instead. By writing a novel in between, it allowed me to really explore Doug’s life in Shanghai, and his all-important circle of friends. “Found Family” is a big theme of my writing, and it is an especially big part of Assassin’s Hood. It allowed me to really explore Doug on a deeper level, and by carrying that forward into the rest of the series it has made the whole thing that much stronger.
2) The Axe Gang plays a big role in the plot. Can you tell us how they differed from the more famous Green Gang of Shanghai?
I discovered the Axe Gang in my research on the assassinations, as possible culprits. I’d never heard of them before that, but it turns out they were a major rival of the Green Gang in southern China. Since then, however , they’ve become very mythologized by Kung Fu movies, so it became difficult to separate fact from myth. Myths usually contain a kernel of truth in there somewhere, and I discovered that the Axe Gang were known for their prowess in martial arts–which is precisely why they later became such a favorite subject of Kung Fu film directors.
Even better, from my perspective, was that there doesn’t seem to be a solid consensus on whether or not they were behind the assassinations of Japanese nationals in 1935-’36. There’s a lot of evidence that they were–witnesses reported seeing men in black with axes on their belts, which were both hallmarks of the Axe Gang–but there’s also reason to believe that they could have been framed, either by the Green Gang, or the Nationalist Juntong. There are certainly reasons to suspect the communists, given their August 1st Declaration in 1935, and it seems logical to me that the Axe Gang might have allied themselves to the communists because their rivals in the Green Gang were allied to the Nationalists (the enemy of my enemy is my friend)–but we can’t rule out the possibility that the Green Gang and/or Nationalists framed them both. I love a good historical uncertainty!
I have my opinion about what really happened. And since I added a fictional assassination of my own to the multiple historical ones, I’m able to provide a definite solution to that crime while still letting readers weigh the evidence on the larger historical question.
3) What research did you do for Assassin’s Hood?
I fell down a lot of internet rabbit holes, with competing theories about who or what was guilty of the assassinations. Google Books’ extensive database was able to give me lots of information on Wang Yaqiao and the Axe Gang that I couldn’t find elsewhere. U.S. Navy archives were invaluable, and helped me to authentically place Doug in the middle of the intrigue. Online newspaper archives showed me how the American press reported on these incidents in the summer of 1936, and although I wasn’t able to dig up anything specifically from the old Shanghai newspapers, I was still able to use the facts in American newspapers to flesh out the details in the story.
4) Was anything cut from your original draft?
I didn’t make huge cuts from the original draft. My typical process is to write a pretty bare-bones first draft, and then go back later to fill in the gaps, so I end up doing far more additions than subtractions. Most of the cutting I do is within a scene–removing unneeded sentences or paragraphs to streamline the action, rather than removing whole scenes. I also tend to spend a lot of mental time on a story before ever writing anything, including during later drafts. More often I’ll have an idea for a scene that I play around with a lot in my head, but eventually I’ll decide not to write it because either it’s not needed, or I get a better idea instead.
5) What do you have planned for future books in the series?
Book 3, titled No Accidental Death, comes out in August! It takes place in 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai. It’s a murder mystery: the body of an American seaman is found shot in the battle zone, mere feet from the boundary of the International Settlement, and the autopsy reveals that it wasn’t Chinese or Japanese military guns that killed him. Doug gets assigned to investigate the murder for the navy, on top of his already heavy intelligence duties with the Japanese invasion.
I’m in the research phase for book 4, which will take place in 1938. The Japanese now occupy most of Shanghai, while the International Settlement and French Concession are “Lonely Islands” in the zone of Japanese occupation. But the party went on! This was a period of rapid expansion of less reputable nightclubs, with gambling taking off in an area that came to be known as “The Badlands.” There was a big uptick in gangland killings, as well as assassinations of Chinese collaborators, so there’s plenty of material. It might even stretch into two novels, who knows? I plan to start writing book 4 this fall, to release next year.