Shanghai 1928 – the body of blonde woman is found dead, washed up on the “Beach of Dead Babies.” The mutilated corpse is marked with the Chinese character for “justice.” It’s with this gruesome and foreboding atmosphere that Death in Shanghai by MJ Lee, and the Inspector Danilov series begins.
Although this is the first book, it’s the third I’ve read, following The Murder Game and The Killing Time. Inspector Danilov, a grizzled veteran of the Police Department in Minsk, is assigned to the case. He’s ordered to take on Strachan – a half-Chinese, half-Scottish rookie – as his new partner. While I’m familiar with their relationship from the other book – Strachan wide-eyed and eager, Danilov, sarcastic and cynical – but was a bit taken aback by his coldness. Here, he always has a sarcastic or dry retort to Strachan’s musings.
The mystery deepens when more bodies pile up – a bureaucrat in the French Concession turns up dead. A Russian prostitute is drowned in pig’s blood. A preacher is hacked limb from limb. All of these victims have a Chinese character carved into their flesh, specifying their alleged “sin” for which they were punished for. Like most serial murderers, the villain is given a catchy nickname – “The Character Killer.”
We don’t find out the Character Killer’s identity toward the end, and even then he’s wearing a hood like a glorious pulp villain. He believes he is a servant of Yama, the god of death. A religious zealot, he’s cleaning Shanghai, the modern Gomorrah of Asia, of its sinners in fitting punishments. Plenty of suspects are thrown in the reader’s direction, but most are obvious red herrings. That being said, I was actually surprised when the killer was revealed.
The novel has good pacing and characterization. Danilov is the perpetual lonely Russian, indulging in opium to stave off bad memories of the family he lost back in Minsk. He’s widely disliked within the Shanghai Municipal Police, in charge of the International Settlement and run by British professionals from the Met. No real personal reasons are given, so we assume it’s due to British prejudice against Russians. In Interwar Shanghai, Russians were often seen as beneath the other white Shanghailanders, being mostly stateless refugees fleeing the USSR.
There are enough twists and turns to keep the reader enthralled – particularly one brutally long chase with some Chinese thugs. Shanghai in of its decadent glory is there, but it’s subdued and mostly stays in the background. It’s a good thriller/mystery and a decent start to the series. If you like your mysteries wrapped in the mystique of 1920s Shanghai, along with pulpy villains, and gore-splattered corpses, check this one out.
MJ Lee Interview
1) This is the first of four Inspector Danilov books. Did you always intend it to be a series?
Yes. From the start, I’ve planned this as a series, even to knowing the date and place Danilov dies. Obviously it comes from doing a lot of research into the period and trying to marry Danilov with the social, political and economic changes in Shanghai during the period. Of course, one mustn’t forget these are crime stories so some sort of criminal event must be at the heart of everything, but Shanghai itself is a character in all the stories.
2) Was there anything from earlier drafts that you cut, only to use them in later Danilov books?
3) Early on in the novel, there is some conflict between the Shanghai Municipal Police and Le Garde Municipale, but they agree to assist each other. How often did this happen? Was cooperation rare between the two organizations?
4) You mentioned that Danilov is rather apolitical. Is this why there isn’t much in the way of Chinese politics in the novel?
5) Was Death in Shanghai an easy sell to the publisher?
6) Who is your favorite character and why?
7) The villain of the story – the Character Killer – seems straight out of the pulps, and gloriously so. Was there any real-life inspiration for him?
8) What are you working on currently?