1932 was an important year in Sino-Japanese relations. In March, the puppet state of Manchukuo was proclaimed, manufactured out of the conquered northeast region of Manchuria. It was also a momentous year for Shanghai when the city became a battleground. It’s on the verge of the undeclared war that we regroup with Inspector Danilov and Detective-Sergeant Strachan in The Killing Time, the fourth book in this series by MJ Lee.
The two are investigating child murders that have been occurring over Shanghai, seemingly without motive. There’s no ransom or demands. But soon enough, Danilov uncovers they are the parents are members of an anti-Japanese boycott group.
This would clearly point the finger at the Japanese but things become more complicated when the son of a Japanese Marine officer, Colonel Ihanaga, is kidnapped. Suspicion is divided amongst the Chinese, the Colonel’s adjutant, Captain Tanaka, and even at Ihanaga himself. Out of these new characters, I actually liked Colonel Ihanaga the most. Cold and imperious, he still retains some traits of a gentleman officer, down to the white gloves that were part of the regulation uniform of the Japanese Navy.
Twists and turns abound as Danilov and Strachan delve deeper into the mystery. One particular juicy tidbit of history that MJ Lee includes is the Nichiren sect of Buddhism. If one knows anything about Japan at this time, the Nichiren Buddhists gained a something of an infamous reputation because of the Blood Brotherhood Incident in 1932.
There’s also a ticking clock in the form of the aforementioned Colonel Ihanaga’s kidnapped son. Through POV chapters, you really feel for the poor kid and hope Danilov figures out where he is before it’s too late. There’s a personal element to his desire to rescues the boy, born out of the shocking ending of the last book.
In the two years after the events of The Murder Game, Danilov’s marriage has devolved into a sad acrimony. His visits to opium dens have become more frequent, although they don’t diminish his detective skills. I feel this might be leading up to something in future books. Strachan, meanwhile, has solidified his romance with Danilov’s daughter, further cementing the relationship between the two.
I liked The Killing Time more than the previous book, in part because I like geopolitical intrigue woven into my thriller novels. The personal drama takes a backseat in this book to the political events enveloping Shanghai. There is a good sense of tension and dread throughout the city. The fuse is lit and all we are just waiting before all of Shanghai explodes. As with the previous book, The Killing Time is fast-paced thanks to a rapid-fire prose and plenty of cliffhangers. You can easily breeze through this in a day or two.
One thing I especially appreciate is the fact that this is set during the 1932 Shanghai Incident, a brief but bloody war that is rarely touched upon in English-language fiction. There is a brief mention in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Indy explains that Short Round’s parents were killed when the Japanese “bombed Shanghai”.
In fact, there is only one nonfiction book in English I’ve ever found and that is 2001’s China’s Trial By Fire: The Shanghai War of 1932. The 1937 Battle of Shanghai was bloodier and more decisive, but the Shanghai Incident is
particularly interesting because of the political intrigue that led up to it. The former Manchu princess turned Japanese spy, Yoshiko Kawashima, and her lover, the Army Intelligence officer, Ryukichi Tanaka, paid hired thugs to murder Buddhist monks, escalating the already existing tension because of the anti-Japanese boycott. This was done in an attempt to divert attention away from the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and welcomed by the Imperial Navy, eager to get their share of glory after being sidelined by the Army.
This strange historical episode interested me so much, that I am currently working on a noir mystery set during the days leading up to the Shanghai War. Hopefully, it will be out next year. But for now, check out The Killing Time to get a fictionalized retelling of this forgotten event.
MJ Lee Interview
1) This is your fourth Inspector Danilov book. Have you planned out the entire series or do you write them one at a time?
I plan them but they keep changing unfortunately. Ideas for the Danilov/Strachan series come to me all the time. Luckily, I know how it all ends for Danilov so there is a cut off point for their investigations. I’m also planning a couple of books fro a young Danilov series for his time in London from 1910 to 1914. It’s a time when he develops as a detective and as a man.
2) Danilov and Strachan seem to have a similar dynamic to Holmes/Watson or Nayland Smith/Dr. Petrie. To be fair, Strachan contributes more to the story than Watson and Petrie do to theirs. However, I was wondering if you chose to model their relationship after them?
Not really. It’s a common trope in crime fiction to have a pair of detectives. Morse/Lewis. Dalzeil/Pascoe. etc etc. Usually, the secondary character is a younger, less smart detective. I wanted Strachan to be different though, showing his arc as he becomes more confident of the skills he brings to the partnership. Danilov will always be the lead, but Strachan is a foil and a partner rather than just a subordinate.
3) At one point, the infamous gangster lord Du Yue Sheng makes an appearance. Will he become a regular antagonist in future books?
Yes, he will make a continual appearance throughout the thirties. In reality, like many gangsters he gradually moved into more legitimate enterprises – banking, manufacturing, money-lending, and philanthropy. The rise of the Japanese in power and their use of Chinese front men, gradually lessened his power. But he was still a force to be reckoned with until the arrival of the communists in 1949 when he fled to Hong Kong.
4) One of the characters is a Japanese Marine officer: Captain Tanaka. I’m curious, was he inspired by the infamous real-life Japanese Army officer Ryukichi Tanaka who helped spark the Shanghai Incident?
He was indeed. My creation was purely fictional, however. But, as I understand it, there was a great deal of subterfuge and double play in China at the time with many of the so-called incidents in Manchuria and Shanghai actually being sparked by Japanese militarists to provoke both action from the Chinese and a reaction from the Japanese military.
5) The Killing Time was released very shortly after Book 3, The Murder Game. Why is that?
Actually, the Murder Game was first published in March 2017, but I changed publisher in late 2017 and moved The Murder Game across to them. So the first two books are published by a different company, HarperCollins. The series is now published by Canelo.
6) I won’t spoil too much but failure on Danilov’s part is a large part of the novel, particularly the ending. Was that a conscious choice on your part? As I said in our previous interview, you inflict a lot of misery on poor Danilov’s life.
I think I wanted a flawed character. They are so much more interesting to write (and to read) than the paragons of virtue displayed in most heroic films and stories. Danilov is a man who is uniquely talented and successful in his work, but is unable to translate that success into his private life. It’s as if he exists in two different worlds; in one he is successful, in the other a failure. It’s that tension that makes him interesting (I hope).
7) Strachan has become romantically involved with Danilov’s daughter, Elina. Did you always plan for that or was that simply something that came naturally from writing these novels?
I planned it from the second book. As Elina became more important as a character – she has her father’s intelligence but combines it with an empathy which he lacks – I wanted to create a relationship between the two of them. Will it create tension with Danilov in the future? Will there be problems between Strachan and Elina as she seeks to express herself as more than just a homemaker? For me, Elina represents the woman that was starting to develop in the Thirties – modern, sophisticated, independent.
8) While researching interwar Shanghai for your series, have you come across any real-life counterparts to the serial killers/bizarre murders who you write about?
I think serial killers existed but they were caught far less often. Then it would have been far easier to dispose of bodies and hide crimes, particularly in China where human life was so cheap. The Jack the Ripper murders, and all the subsequent publicity, were the first serial killings that were made so obvious (Even though the concept of serial killing, or serien morder, wasn’t developed until the 1920s in Germany.) I’m sure they existed, just that these people hid themselves so much better. Holmes and the Chicago World’s Fair killings being the classic example until he was discovered by chance.
9) Can you recommend any books that you used for research while writing this series?
There are quite a few places to research if anybody is interested in this period. The Shanghai Municipal archives, Shanghai Police Museum and the newspapers of the time were particularly useful. Old maps of Shanghai were great for getting the right street names (they have all changed since the end of the colonial era). Contemporary memoirs gave a wonderful feel for the place. Gow’s tourist guides for 1924 and 1930 (the Lonely Planet of the day) had costs and prices for everyday goods. There are not many academic studies of the period but Robert Bickers’ ‘England Made Me’ was particularly useful. Finally, I walked the streets of Shanghai. The old parts of the city are still there. It was great to imbibe the sights, sounds an and smells of the Paris of the East.
10) What’s next for Danilov and Strachan? Can you provide us with any details about the fifth book?
I’m writing as we speak. All I can say is that they will both be tested to an extreme. The victims are not the only ones to be tortured in The Danilov books.
You can order The Killing Time here.