In 1928 Shanghai, a Chinese family named the Lees is brutally murdered while a disabled girl watches in horror, before falling victim herself. It’s up to Inspector Danilov and his sidekick Strachan to unravel this bizarre mystery.
City of Shadows by MJ Lee is the second Inspector Danilov book and in my opinion, it’s a little stronger than the first. The first book – Death in Shanghai – saw Inspector Danilov and Strachan chasing down a bizarre serial killer, whereas City of Shadows is more rooted in the organized crime that permeated Shanghai during the 1920s and 1930s.
A killer is soon arrest – a man named Kao – but it’s quite obvious he’s just a fall guy. While he is being moved, he’s killed in broad daylight and the detective in charge of the case goes missing, adding to the mystery. Danilov and Strachan get involved after the coverup becomes too apparent to ignore. Danilov guesses that the missing detective had a direct role in the murder, so the hunt is on.
While searching through Shanghai, Danilov and Strachan come face to face with its unsavory underworld, specifically the form of Tu Yueh-sheng (Du Yueh-sheng), the infamous Grandmaster of the Green Gang. I don’t think I’m giving too much away here, but the killer of Lee family is a hitman, hired to kill them in cold blood. But the mystery is why was the Lee family murdered? By all outward appearances, they seemed like a normal, middle-class Chinese family. And what does the missing detective have to do with it?
There are a few subplots, most notably with Danilov’s estranged daughter who is now living with him. I appreciated these scenes with them trying to reconnect and, generally, failing. She also goes out on a date only to learn a lesson in unscrupulous reporters. The other theme of the book being the media frenzy for cases like this was just as – if not worse – than it is today.
City of Shadows is an entertaining and thrilling mystery set in the seedy underbelly of 1920s Shanghai, and one you’ll find yourself lost in.
MJ Lee Interview
1) You mentioned you always planned the Danilov books as a series. Did you already have City of Shadows formed and planned while you were writing Death in Shanghai?
Hi Matthew, great to be here today. I didn’t have City of Shadows formed or planned while I was writing Death in Shanghai. I’m a pantser, that is, I don’t have a formal plan before I start writing a novel. I have a couple of images in my head and then I let my subconscious and the characters tell me where to go with the story. In the case of City Of Shadows, I had the image of a crippled girl listening to the murder of her family at night and then waiting for the killer to come for her. A sort of gothic start to the novel. I also had an idea of Danilov’s arc in the book. That is, the way his character would change and develop through the story. And obviously with Danilov, the death and destruction of a family has a particular resonance with him.
I’m a great believer in character driven plots rather than killings just for the sake of a detective story. The solution to the murder must add tot the character of the investigators as well as the motivation of the killers.
2) Was there a real-life inspiration for the murder of the fictional Lee family?
Again, not really. I did read that post the 1927 coup against the communists by Chiang Kai Shek and the leaders of the Green Gang, there were a lot of reprisals from both sides with whole families being killed. That sparked an idea for a crime novel in me. And as the character of Danilov is obsessed with finding his lost family, the death of another family raises the stakes in the investigation. The spectre of the same happening to his family makes the discovery of the murderer even more imperative.
3) Was there anything cut out or changed from earlier drafts of the book?
Please don’t remind me. There were a lot of cuts from the first draft of this book – about 30%. Writers always say the second book in any series is the most difficult and this was certainly true for me. I had a whole sub plot involving another family, but my editor at the publishers, Clio Cornish, felt the sub plot detracted from the pace and the focus of the book. She was sooooo right. Once I had cut this story it all fell into place well and was much more focussed. Sometimes, as writers, we have to cut our darlings. And, although I loved the other story, City of Shadows was much better without it. So it goes…
4) Are there anything aspects of Interwar Era Shanghai you would like to cover in future books?
There are so many other aspects of Shanghai that I would like to cover – the city in this period is a fertile ground for any writer. The growth of the Badlands in the western part of the city which became an centre for gambling and prostitution. The conflict between the spy agencies of the major superpowers at the time – Japan, America, Russia, Britain, France and Germany – was fought in the small land area of the city. There are a couple of fascinating books on the activities of the spies. The growth of the city as a center of commerce and corruption, with the trappings of beautiful Art Deco buildings as a backdrop. The arrival of Jewish refugees in the city – Shanghai was one of the few places in the world which was willing to accept people fleeing from the horrors of Nazi Germany. The 1937 war in Shanghai and the bombing close to the Bund which killed over 3000 people. I even have a plot suggested by an episode of Star Trek!!!! Try to guess which one….
There are so many stories in Shanghai just waiting to be told…
5) When will the next Danilov book come out?
As soon as I can find the time to write it is the short answer. I have the idea and the story plus a few of the images swirling around my brain. But, as with most writers, it’s a question of finding the time. Unfortunately, I have two other series I’m writing and they are taking precedence at the moment. I would love to return to Danilov and his story soon though. I have a liking for the man and his eccentricities, I even know how, when and why he dies….but that’s another story….
Thanks for having me on your blog, Matthew.