Like Weimar Berlin, Shanghai in the 1920s and 30s has always held a unique appeal for me. It’s got everything: bloodthirsty gangsters, seedy prostitutes, glamorous nightclubs, spies, political intrigue, and a cosmopolitan feel that makes Berlin look like Oklahoma.
The Murder Game by MJ Lee is the third in the Inspector Danilov series, following Death in Shanghai and City of Shadows. This was my first foray into the Danilov series and it didn’t disappoint, nor was I lost in a sea of continuity. The beginning is enough to bring any thriller fan on board; a young Chinese woman escaping from a masked madman’s torture chamber. He agrees to release her as long as she tells Danilov that “the game has begun”, hinting that he has a vendetta against the detective. Even more bizarre, the killer’s MO is strikingly similar to a madman who Danilov killed earlier in his career.
The plot is reminiscent of something out of the Saw franchise; a psychopath kidnaps people and places them into elaborate death traps. As the bodies pile up, Inspector Danilov and his assistant, the Chinese-Scottish Sergeant Strachan, race against time to uncover the killer’s identity. Adding to the overall mystery, Strachan sees glimpses of his recently deceased mother from time to time. MJ Lee’s Shanghai is an ominous, foreboding city where, despite its overpopulation, you feel the dread of urban isolation within every character.
I mentioned that the villain is similar to the Jigsaw killer, but there is a rich tradition in pulp fiction of madmen putting their victims through elaborate death traps; from Fu Manchu to Dr. Mabuse. This book has loads of pulp thrills and I mean that in the best way possible. The prose is crisp and clean and chapters are short, letting you breeze through it.
Danilov is the archetypal sad Russian émigré, a man who’s lost his family, his country, and himself. Haunted by his past, he’s curt and gruff, indulging in the occasional opium pipe for a momentary comfort. I’ve always been fascinated by the White Russians refugees, a people who were cast out of their native land and wound up in every corner of the world, Paris, Istanbul, Harbin, New York, and especially Shanghai. In China, Russian women often sold themselves as prostitutes whereas the men often became soldiers, police officers, mercenaries, bodyguards, nightclub bouncers, doormen, and everything else in between.
There is a lot of great opportunities to have your protagonist be one of these White Russian émigrés and I’m eager to see where MJ Lee takes Inspector Danilov next. Especially after that shocker of an ending…
MJ Lee Interview
1) What inspired you to write The Murder Game in specific and the Danilov series?
I remember very clearly when the idea for writing a novel set in the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s came to me.
I was out strolling one evening in Shanghai (we were living in the city at that time). It was around dusk in October, one of the best times of the year in the city. Perfect walking weather. I reached the crossroads at Jiangxi Middle Road and Fuzhou Road, just opposite the Metropole Hotel. A square where four Art Deco buildings built in the 1930s meet. For a moment, there was no traffic and no people, a strange occurrence in a city of over twenty million people. I closed my eyes and was suddenly transported back to the 1920s, imagining old Dodges, Packards, and Chevrolets rolling up to the hotel, discharging carloads of flappers and elegant men wearing tuxedos. A lovely moment, trapped in time.
I think it was then that he Inspector Danilov books were born. The two main characters, Detective Inspector Danilov and Detective Sergeant Strachan, took more time to develop, They are both outsiders, in a society full of outsiders. They are employed by the Shanghai Municipal Police but distanced and separate from the rest of their colleagues, and from the society of the time. Mavericks are always so much more interesting to read about and to write. The choice of Danilov as the lead in the books actually came from a line in a policeman’s memoir of the time. He mentioned that when they had a problem, both the French and Shanghai police turned to White Russian members of their forces to solve it for them.
2) Have you always been interested in 1920s/1930s Shanghai?
Shanghai fascinated me. I lived in the city for two years. After Liberation in 1949 until well into the 1990s, the city hardly changed, many of the old districts remaining as they were in the 1930s. In addition, all the old Art Deco buildings that were put up at that time remained as they were. Walking the streets, one could feel and smell the atmosphere of the 1930s.
3) 1920s Shanghai has a unique appeal. Why do you think there has been so much fiction written about it?
I don’t know if there are that many other works and I don’t know what attracts other writers to the period. But for me, it’s a wonderful setting for a novel. Back then, the city of ‘joy, gin, and jazz’ was an amazing melting pot of adventurers, spies, triads, opium smugglers, merchants, con-men, communists, criminals, fascists, Japanese militarists, gamblers and refugees. With such a witches cauldron of deceit and double-dealing, happiness and despair, wealth and poverty, it soon became obvious that only a crime novel, with its strong moral compass, could explore the depths of the abyss that was Shanghai.
4) What research did you do for the book?
A lot of research. 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.
5) The villain of The Murder Game orchestrates elaborate death traps, much like the Jigsaw killer in the Saw movies. Is he more inspired from modern horror films or pulp villains of the past like Dr. Mabuse and Fu Manchu?
To be honest, I don’t know where he came from. The Chinese Gods and their mythology are particularly rich, and the concept of punishment for misdeeds, or perceived misdeeds, exists to this day. They were the inspiration fro a character who was inspired to punish a whole city. I haven’t seen the Saw movies so I don’t know what they are like, whilst Fu Manchu is a little too stylised for me. I think a writer absorbs constantly so in Danilov’s character are elements of Sherlock Holmes, Catholic guilt complexes, Russian stoicism, bits of Dostoevsky, not a little Dickens and even more Miss Marple. Too many influences to pinpoint one.
6) This is the third novel of the Danilov series. When you began the series, did you have a definite plan on where you wanted to take it?
Very much so. I know the date he dies and why he dies, the arc of his life and his character as well as the trials and tribulations he is yet to face, some of which I hint at in the first three books. I even have the idea for a few books featuring a young Danilov, when he is on secondment with Scotland Yard. For example, his involvement in the Siege of Sidney Street. The fifth Danilov book will hint at this even more.
7) I have never read the other Danilov books, so maybe my answer is covered there. Are you planning on Danilov tangling with Russian fascist or Communist groups operating within Shanghai?
The others deal with crime. Danilov has a distaste for politics after his experience in Russia. Unfortunately for him, he will be dragged into the political arena in a later book. An arena where he will have to work with a Russian who helped drive his family out of his beloved country. I can’t say any more at the moment because I haven’t written the book yet. It’s just the nub of an idea at the moment.
8) Danilov’s superior, Chief Inspector Rock, is a stiff-upper-lip British authoritarian. Was that British self-deprecating humor in making him like that?
Not really. At that time, there were many British figures in authority who displayed similar characteristics. But I understand where you are coming from – the refusal to take ourselves seriously is one of the things that I most admire in British culture. We tend to think of politicians as creatures of amusement rather than as people to be taken seriously
9) Danilov occasionally smokes opium to relieve the pressure and relax. He seems to have a pretty stressful, miserable life. I was wondering if, after the events of this novel, this will take its toll on him?
All I can say is that in Book 4 it gets worse, but after that, he has a period of relative calm before the forces that have impacted his life create havoc once more.
10) Could you tell us about your latest and upcoming projects?
I shall continue to murder people for a living.
I’ve just finished writing a contemporary police story set in Manchester. A radical departure for me as it has no historical element involved, but I found the experience cathartic. At the moment I’m halfway through a genealogical mystery featuring Jayne Sinclair. This story required a lot of research as it involves the latest DNA advances and the issues of the slave trade and its abolition. In August, I start writing the next Danilov story which will be out early next year. I’m just doing the research as we speak, discovering more about the Shanghai of the 1930s.
I’m afraid my life is writing. I love doing it and creating such different characters and dealing with differing periods of history and life keeps it all interesting for me. I’m never bored researching and writing.