Tuesday, June 18, 2013

HOUR OF THE RAT, Lisa Brackmann: Suspense and Danger in the Real China

So, you're reading international crime fiction, right? And you definitely can picture the art, canals, and food (even almost smell it) in Donna Leon's Venice mysteries; you're getting worried about gray-sky days because in the Scandinavian mysteries they mean more killings and more depression; and you can't decide which African crime fiction you like better, the almost cozy ones by Alexander McCall Smith or the edgy and dangerous ones by Jassy Mackenzie.

So, what are you going to do about China?

I promise, I don't usually talk or write like that -- but Ellie McEnroe, age 27 and a long-term injured Iraq War veteran living in China, definitely does. Lisa Brackmann's adventurous American in Beijing keeps getting into controversy, though, and in modern China, mouthy Americans are mostly not welcome. Americans who support, hide, and have contact with anti-government artists are even more not welcome. Even with her connections, and now her mom living with her, Ellie is in trouble.

Readers who caught Brackmann's first Ellie McEnroe title, ROCK PAPER TIGER (2010), already know Ellie's war wound has left her vulnerable to pain-easing drugs, and her refusal to play things safe has set her against the Chinese government when it chases after her artist friends. Especially intriguing is the way Ellie finds herself caught up simultaneously in an online gaming world that has odd connections to who she's seeking and who's chasing her. (Shades of William Gibson, really.)

HOUR OF THE RAT takes Ellie out of Beijing -- she's burning out in a lot of ways, and it's time to get to other locations. The opening scene, an art opening event, captures her situation:
Guests and artists mill around, drinking Yanjing beer and eating yangrouchuanr, which normally I'd be all over, but the meat on these is so small and gristly that I wonder if it's actually mutton and not dog instead. Or rat.

I was born in the Year of the Rat, and eating my birth animal seems like it would be bad luck. So I stick to the beer.

"Why are we here, again?" I ask.

"I'd heard good things about the painter," Harrison says, flicking his hazel eyes at one of hte giat canvases, one where a fat naked guy whose face is done up in Peking Opera makeup lies sprawled across a red Ferrari, his guts spilling out of his sliced-open stomach. ... "I agree with you, it's disappointing."

... He's my boss, sort of.

I manage the work of a Chinese artist. An important one. Which is pretty funny, considering that I know f***-all about art. Which is why, I guess, Harrison keeps trying to get me to learn.
In addition to this sense of burnout, two nearly irresistible forces are on Ellie's case: (1) Somebody keeps trying to purchase her client's art, which oddly enough is not a good thing because he's in danger with the government and any sale will bring people after him right now; and (2) Ellie's mom, who seems to have run away from her American life, is trying to direct Ellie's life instead (while bringing her own Chinese boyfriend into the mix).

But when Ellie goes on the run -- with her mother and said BF in tow -- a third and maybe even a fourth factor (both political/police related) press into her life. And the places she ends up running to and through are some of the scariest in modern China, because they are the most heavily polluted and poisoned and -- you knew this was coming -- doggedly made invisible by the government.

Brackmann, musing on how she developed HOUR OF THE RAT, says, "Many in the West tend to think of Chinese as passive and uninvolved when it comes to politics, and while it’s true that the CCP does not look kindly upon activities that threaten its monopoly on power, Chinese people have been very vocal when it comes to environmental issues. Many of the approximately 180,000 “mass incidents” in China last year were provoked by pollution or other environmental concerns. Tens of thousands of people have protested polluting factories in places like Ningbo and Xiamen. These are issues that unite poor peasant farmers and well-to-do urban dwellers alike."

In terms of Ellie's life, that means there are people who may give her some support and information as she tries to escape whoever is chasing and threatening her and the ties to these polluted places. But it also means nobody around her can afford to go on the record.

Brackmann's crime fiction is exhilarating and compelling, and I had no regrets about trading in my preconceptions about China, to absorb both the current issues and the clear passion that Ellie has for the place and its diversity. Readers don't need to read Rock Paper Tiger first, but -- why not get both books for double enjoyment? Brackmann is definitely sustaining the strong narrative voice and deft weaving of plot and character that brought her huge praise for the first Ellie McEnroe adventure, and I hope she's planning more. I'm in for this.

More from Brackmann, here: http://www.lisabrackmann.com/books/hour-of-the-rat

Our review of Rock Paper Tiger, here: http://kingdombks.blogspot.com/2010/07/when-global-gets-dangerous-lisa.html

And if you've been reading this while also trying to remember whether you were born in a year of the rat, or dragon, or horse ... check here: http://www.ofesite.com/spirit/chinese/animal2.htm

1 comment:

Kat Sheridan said...

I absolutely concur with your take on Ms. Brackmann and her work. I loved Rock Paper Tiger, and was so glad to see Ellie back in this book. She is such a complex character. And I loved the really wry humor hidden in this one, that so perfectly expresses Ellie's view of the world!