Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Hatchet Man by William Marshall

"Hong Kong is an island of some 30 square miles under British administration in the South China Sea facing Kowloon and the New Territories areas of continental China. Kowloon and the New Territories are also British administered, surrounded by the Communist Chinese province of Kwantung. The climate is generally sub-tropical, with hot, humid summers and heavy rainfall. The population of Hong Kong and the surrounding areas at any one time, including tourists and visitors, is in excess of four millions. The New Territories are leased from the Chinese. The lease is due to expire in 1997, but the British nevertheless maintain a military presence along the border, although, should the Communists who supply almost all the colony's drinking water, ever desire to terminate the lease early, they need only turn off the taps. Hong Bay is on the southern side of the island and the tourist brochures advise you not to go there after dark."

The Yellowthread Street series is one of my absolute favourites of all time. There are sixteen altogether, and with this one I've read - I think - seven. I think, because I read most of the others as they turned up in the local library in the seventies, since when they have proved hard to find, although the first, Yellowthread Street, was reprinted in 1986. When I found that in the much-lamented Murder One bookshop on Charing Cross Road, I decided that I would have to read them all.
The Hatchet Man was published in 1976 and is set, like all of the series, in Hong Bay before the colony was handed back to the Chinese. The passage above appears somewhere in the first chapter of each of the books, so that you come across it with a smile of familiarity, because it is typical of Marshall's humour. The touch of insanity which pervades all of his writing lifts them from hard-boiled crime to create a roller-coaster which tips you back and forth between hilarity and holding your breath. One of the books - wish I could remember which - gave me the most truly heart-stopping moment I can ever remember reading, as I realised just ahead of Detective Chief Inspector Harry Feiffer precisely what danger he was in as he followed a murderer into a building. I won't tell you what, in case you ever read it, but it was genuinely horrific and terrifying, I can feel it again just writing about it.

Although you are not conscious of a huge amount of character development in each book, the reader quickly learns the idiosyncrasies of Feiffer's team (and their long-suffering wives). Feiffer himself is European, but Hong Kong-born, while Inspector Christopher O'Yee is Eurasian and was born in San Francisco. Detectives Spencer and Auden, who bear a distinct resemblance in my mind to Tweedledum and Tweedledee, always bickering, are very much the young British male abroad, very gung ho and ready, as soon as they have gun in hand, to blast away at felons, although Feiffer knows that he needs to protect them from themselves.

In The Hatchet Man the team are investigating a series of apparently random murders in cinemas; overstretched, tired and irritable, everyone is spending long hours in the station on Yellowthread Street sifting through the detritus found on cinema floors in the hope that it will yield some information. The all-seeing narrative style lets us follow the main characters, including the Hatchet Man himself - this is something I can find annoying, but I don't here, because there's a quality about Marshall's matter-of-fact voice which makes it work and you can be part, in turn, of Feiffer's worry about his team, Spencer's clumsy tactlessness, O'Yee's neurotic ramblings about whether his children will still recognise him when he's always out at work, even the Hatchet Man's psychosis, even old Mrs Mortimer whose dementia makes her unpleasantly racist. Each is a glimpse into a flawed person, some just bumbling along doing their best, some so damaged by time and events that they've moved beyond the boundaries that constrain the rest of us. Marshall's dialogue catches all the half-spoken thoughts, the miscommunications that are part of everyday life, too - a trait he shares with William Gibson, another "hard-boiled" writer with a gift for creating remarkably endearing characters - I find myself going back with pleasure over snatches of conversation to see if I've missed any nuances.

It's not the "whodunit" element that makes this series compulsive, although the plotting is tight enough for satisfying reading. Their charm is in their quirkiness, their delight in the idiocy of everyday life. Feiffer is plagued by a teahouse owner called Mr Lop who hates him (as we know from an earlier book):
"Who is the suspicious person?" Yan asked. 
"He's gone now," Lop said. He said, "He was in my tea house. He looked very suspicious. He's gone now."
"Gone where?"
"Gone. How do I know? I'm not the police. That's Feiffer's job."
"Mr Feiffer isn't here," said Constable Yan patiently. "Does Mr Feiffer know you?"
Mr Lop said, "I don't like Feiffer. Feiffer doesn't like me. Feiffer got me into trouble with Tax." he said, "If it was the Hatchet Man and Feiffer was out when I rang up and he missed him I'll laugh myself silly."
It feels as though the narrative progresses by a series of snapshots of the team at work, rather than in a completely linear fashion, and the jerky shutter action provides verisimilitude, as if we were watching Sam Spade (who indeed gets a mention) in slightly stuttery black-and-white. In 1990 there was an abortive attempt at making a TV series, which stripped the stories of all the things which made them most special, and may have done the books themselves no favours at all by so grossly misrepresenting them.

If you come across one in a charity shop, do please give it a try! For my own part, I feel that my Century of Books has, to echo Simon, got off to a very good start.

2 comments:

  1. Dear Geranium Cat's Bookshelf:

    Can I interest you in reviewing my new work of fiction, UGLY TO START WITH, published last month by West Virginia University Press?

    I've won awards for my writing. If you write me back at johnmcummings@aol.com, I'll send you some information.

    I would be grateful to hear from you.

    Thank you.

    Kindly,

    John Michael Cummings

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  2. *sigh* just as I expected. I love your review, and now I must find some of these to read! They sound delightful - funny, a little zany/crazy, with idiosyncratic recurring characters. Perfect!!!!!

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