The story takes place in Interwar Era Shanghai – 1935 to be specific – when is at peace, but there are tremors rumbling below the surface. Doug Bainbridge is a recruit for the American Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) and is tasked with learning Chinese dialects. Doug is likable enough and has an “everyman” feel to him, despite being from the upper classes. While in Shanghai, he meets with an old friend, Tim McIntyre, a reporter who is exposing the corruption and political intrigue within the city.
The crux of the novel takes a little while to get going, but in the meantime, we get situated in 1935 Shanghai. We follow Doug on his daily routine as he gets comfortable to the layout of the city, and slowly take in the tumultuous politics that is turning the city into a powder keg. One night, Doug accompanies Tim to a club – the titular Jade Dragon – but when he steps out for a breath of fresh air, Tim is murdered. The assailant escapes and the Police don’t seem particularly eager to solve the case. Tim – after all – we a muckraker who’d made many enemies with his exposes.
Doug is determined to find out who murdered his friend. But the list of suspects is quite long – the Japanese Secret Service, the Chinese Secret Service, the Green Gang, corrupt police officers, Chinese Communists, and the list goes on. Garett Hutson seamlessly weaves historical events and details into the narrative, such a subplot involving the Korean Provisional Government, which was located in Shanghai. It’s an interesting aspect that hasn’t been covered widely in English-language fiction.
The book really reminded me of the Mr. Moto series and similar novels from the 1930s, such as That Evening in Shanghai. In these types of stories, an American gets mixed up in intrigue, murder, and double-dealings in an Asian setting. Just like Doug, the protagonists of those books have to play amateur detective to unravel the mystery they’ve found themselves plunged into. In that aspect, The Jade Dragon feels like a lost book from the 1930s and one that will entertain mystery fans.
Garret Hutson Interview
1) What inspired you to write The Jade Dragon?
I was doing some internet surfing a few years ago, when I came across a news article about the revival of the old Shanghai jazz clubs, and how a new generation of American jazz musicians were participating. The article had some historical background on how the western jazz scene flourished in Shanghai in the 1920s and ’30s, and I was intrigued enough to start some research the moment I finished reading the article. One link led to another, and I went down the rabbit hole for a couple of hours! As I read about all of the corruption and organized crime, I kept thinking “This would be a great setting for a murder mystery.” Since mysteries were my first love in fiction, I started jotting down some ideas.
I happened to have recently finished reading Uncovering Ways of War: U.S. Intelligence and Foreign Military Innovation, 1918-1941, by Thomas G. Mahnken; it detailed an extensive immersion program that the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) ran in Japan during the interwar period, training future intelligence officers who would know Japanese language and culture inside and out. I started imagining something similar in Shanghai, and that’s how I came up with the character of Doug Bainbridge.
2) What research did you do to capture Old Shanghai in the 1930s?
There is a wealth of information out there on Shanghai during the interwar period. It was a popular place. I was very fortunate to find a detailed 1934 guidebook online, that listed all the things the intrepid American visitor would want to do in Shanghai and the surrounding area. It clearly reflected the biases of white Americans at the time, but that was also useful in building the atmosphere of the International Settlement, with all of its foreign residents. I used a lot of the details it provided (including prices) to add flavor to the setting.
I was also fortunate to find the memoir of a British police officer who served with the Shanghai Municipal Police from 1929 to 1936. It was also full of attitudes and biases that we find problematic today, so I had to step around a lot of that, but the insights it gave to policing and the day-to-day life in the International Settlement were priceless.
Many of the old buildings on the Bund still stand, and have been restored to their full Art Deco glory. There are tons of photographs online of these places–vintage black & white photos, plus modern pictures in full color. These were invaluable in letting me describe real places in ways that would make a reader feel like they were there.
3) There is a subplot about the Korean Provisional Government which many Westerners probably don’t know about. Were there any other historical factoids like this that you found particularly interesting?
So many interesting details! The presence of the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai, along with the significant Japanese presence in the International Settlement, was only one of many bits of political intrigue that pulled me in. Japan had ruled Korea for twenty-five years by the time of my story, and the Korean Provisional Government coordinated resistance activities from their base in Shanghai. It seemed natural that Japanese agents would recruit spies to infiltrate the Korean resistance, and I found a way to work that into the larger mystery surrounding the murder of Doug Bainbridge’s friend.
The other historical factoid I particularly enjoyed was the corruption surrounding Du Yueshing, aka “Big-Eared Du.” He ran the largest organized crime syndicate in China, big in the opium trade–and yet through his personal connections with President/General Chiang Kai-shek, he was appointed the drug commissioner for Shanghai. Real-life contradictions like that are gold for the fiction writer!
4) How much of The Jade Dragon changed from draft to draft?
The overall structure and mystery remained constant from first draft to final version. What developed over several rounds of revisions were the characters, and how they related to each other and to the larger mystery. I determined whodunit, and how, before starting the first draft, and that never changed. I had also planned out most of my red herrings, so having that structure in place before drafting freed me up to play with characters and subplots during revisions. That’s unusual for me, actually, as I am 90% pantser and maybe 10% planner when it comes to first drafts.
5) You frequently mention Charlie Chan in the story, and I feel the book is very reminiscent of the Mr. Moto series – in that a white American protagonist gets into intrigue and danger in Asia. Were any of these 1930s “Asian mystery” books influences on your writing?
I remember watching the old Charlie Chan movies as a kid, but I have to confess that I never read the books. I used to watch a lot of old movies with my mom, and the Charlie Chan films were early favorites. They’re problematic today, in many ways, but they were very popular in their time. I knew that my American characters would be familiar with Charlie Chan, whether from books or the movie franchise, so it felt natural for them to make allusions to the fictional detective while they worked through a murder mystery.
It’s funny you should mention Mr. Moto–I was not conscious of any connection while writing the book, but in hindsight I can see some similarities. I remember Mr. Moto from an old movie, but not nearly as well as Charlie Chan. Now I’ll have to go back and read those books!
6) Who is your favorite character and why?
Lucy Kinzler was my surprise favorite. She really was a surprise–I hadn’t planned her at all, she just kind of appeared aboard ship when I wrote the opening scene. At first I thought she was kind of a throw-away character, someone who serves a purpose for a scene and then disappears from the narrative. But she kept inserting herself into situations as I wrote the first draft, which was a lot of fun. The funny thing is that I had planned for a different character to be Doug’s love interest. I left some echoes of that in the story, so the savvy reader will probably guess which character was originally intended for Doug. As I said, I’m usually about 90% pantser and 10% planner, but what I plan out in advance are my characters. I guess my little pantser heart wouldn’t let me do a first draft without at least one big surprise, and Lucy was it. And it really worked out perfectly. She forces Doug to grow in a way that felt natural. Of course she brought her mother along for the ride, and Mrs. Kinzler was a delightful surprise as well, a lot of fun to write.
Lucy plays a bigger role in the second installment of the series, Assassin’s Hood, which I released earlier this summer. I’ve really enjoyed the development of her character, and her relationship with Doug.
7) What are you working on currently?
I’m wrapping up the second installment of a different series (my Spy Catcher series that centers on Martin Schuller, and American counterintelligence officer), but I have an idea for a third book in my Shanghai series, and I think I’ll start working on that this fall. So definitely watch for a third book with Doug, Lucy, and Jonesy.
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