Tag Archives: Hong Kong

Is Jo Nesbo the world’s best crime novelist?

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A review of The Leopard: A Harry Hole Novel, by Jo Nesbo

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If Jo Nesbo isn’t the world’s best crime novelist, he’s certainly making a play for the top of the list. For what it’s worth, anyway, I haven’t read anyone better at the game. The Leopard, one of the later entries among the ten detective novels in Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, portrays the conflicted Norwegian homicide cop in the depth of his complexity, pursuing a fiendish serial killer from Norway to the Congo.

The Leopard opens in Hong Kong, where Harry has fled to drown himself in alcohol and heroin following his resignation from the Norwegian police. A serial killer he captured too late had upended his life by separating Harry from the woman he loves. However, a clever young detective from Oslo manages to track him down and persuade him to return with her because he is urgently needed to take on a new high-profile case, the murder of a member of the Norwegian Parliament. Harry consents only because the young detective tells him that his father is seriously ill and confined to a hospital.

The novel functions well on three levels: a suspenseful story of how Harry and his colleagues pursue a brilliant serial killer, uncovering surprises all along the way; an insightful character study of a man wrestling with more than his share of demons as he suffers through the illness and eventual death of his father; and a highly perceptive tale of internal politics within the Norwegian police, focusing on the high-stakes rivalry between two police units that the Ministry of Justice threatens to merge, effectively eliminating Harry’s department and ending his career. Somehow, Nesbo packs all this into a novel of moderate length, managing as well to dip into the Congolese civil wars that center on the trade in coltan (used in cellphones) and touch on the brutal colonial history of the Congo. The Leopard is extraordinarily rich in fascinating detail.

For all that he writes such superb detective novels, Jo Nesbo is also a prominent rock musician and an author of children’s books. (To date, he has written a total of 17 books.) Oh, and he earned a degree from the Norwegian School of Economics, worked as a stockbroker, and was also a top-notch soccer player until he broke his ankle.

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Organ trafficking, prostitution, and drugs in the underbelly of Asian society

A review of Vulture Peak: A Royal Thai Detective Novel, by John Burdett

@@@ (3 out of 5)

When I read John Burdett’s first novel, Bangkok 8, I was hooked, and I couldn’t wait to learn more about its fascinating protagonist, the incorruptible Thai homicide detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. Bangkok 8 offered up a feast of intimate knowledge about Buddhism as practiced in Thailand, the local brand of animist superstitions, and the corruption that pervades every nook and cranny of Thai society, all revealed in the context of a spectacular murder mystery. In three subsequent novels featuring the detective — Bangkok Tattoo, Bangkok Haunts, and The Godfather of Katmandu — Burdett gradually shifted the emphasis of his writing from Sonchai Jitpleecheep’s exotic inner dialogue to the grisly details of the homicide case at hand. In Vulture Peak, the fifth novel in the Royal Thai Detective Series, Burdett has gone the distance. The local color of Thailand’s red-light districts is still there, and the plot is, if anything, even more convoluted, but the detective has grown tired and his worldview is verging on cynicism. The result is less than fully satisfying.

Vulture Peak — the place, not the title — is the palatial hilltop home outside Phuket on the Thai coast where three bodies have been discovered, so badly mutilated that their gender can’t be determined at first. Heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, genitals, face have all been surgically removed, the bodies left on an oversized bed in the deserted home. Detective Jitpleecheep is ordered by his boss, the famously corrupt policeman, Colonel Vikorn, to learn the identity of the murderer. If the detective solves the case, the colonel can take credit and boost his campaign for Governor of Bangkok — a campaign no one would ever have expected him to undertake. Here is the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma, and Jitpleecheep must use all his wile and intuition to unravel the threads of the case.

As the detective sets out with his katoey (transgender) assistant, mystery piles on mystery. Why is Colonel Vikorn running for public office when he is already making billions from the drug trade? Who owns the house on Vulture Peak, and what is it used for? Is the colonel’s bitter rival, General Zinna, involved in organ trafficking? Does he own the house? As new characters crowd onto the scene, the plot grows ever more intricate. To understand what’s going on, you’ll have to read almost to the very end of the book.

Don’t get the impression from anything I’ve written above that Vulture Peak doesn’t erupt in startling prose from time to time. Here, for example, Burdett comments on Christianity (with apologies to you, Dear Reader, if you’re a believer): “Of the world’s three universal religions, one is based on a profound insight into human psychology and one is based on a profound insight into the kind of social structure that is necessary for people to live in peace and harmony . . . The former is Buddhism, and the latter is Islam. The other world religion is an insane collection of primitive magic and mumbo-jumbo, with cadavers resurrecting and walking around with holes in them, lepers suddenly healing and the blind suddenly seeing, virgins giving birth and snakes that talk.”

And again, commenting on Western civilization: “The discovery of nirvana is the psychological equivalent of the invention of zero but vastly more important. Think of where mathematics was before zero, and you have the level of mental development of the West: good/bad, right/left, profit/loss, heaven/hell, us/them, me/you. It’s like counting with Roman numerals.”

John Burdett was born in the UK, became a lawyer there, spent a dozen years practicing in Hong Kong, then left the law to write crime novels. He now divides his time between Thailand and France.

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Nine Dragons, by Michael Connolly

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Michael Connolly’s hero-cop, Harry Bosch, wends his way through a deeply personal crisis in this fast-moving tale of murder and human trafficking that speeds from Los Angeles to Hong Kong and back. In pursuing his suspect in the murder of a South Los Angeles liquor store owner, a Chinese immigrant, Harry follows the trail of the suspect’s triad affiliation across the Pacific — only to find that his 13-year-old daughter, Maddie, has been abducted, almost certainly by the triad. And the story grows more complicated from that point on, as Harry flies to Hong Kong to rush through a “39-hour day” searching for his daughter.

Connolly’s Harry Bosch novels stand out from the usual run of hard-boiled detective stories for the depth of his hero’s feelings that come to light in his ongoing inner dialogue. As Connolly writes in a “bonus” commentary on the Kindle Edition, “Nine Dragons is about Harry and his daughter. It’s about his hopes for her, his guilt over his poor performance as a father, and most of all it is about his vulnerability as a father.”

Nine Dragons comes to life most vividly during Harry’s weekend stay in Hong Kong, far from his usual haunts not just geographically but also culturally. There, Connolly’s research yields up a fascinating look at the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods, and at the triads that dominate life there. (Triads are secret Chinese associations with political roots hundreds of years in China’s past. Today, the triads are criminal organizations often engaged in extortion, smuggling, human trafficking, drugs, and though still based in China, they are active in many countries around the world.)

I’ve read a number of the Harry Bosch novels. I’ll read more.

ISBN-10: 0316166316

ISBN-13: 978-0316166317

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