Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From Barbara

Newman, Sharan. The Shanghai Tunnel. Recommended by Robin Agnew of Aunt Agatha's bookstore as one of April's Killer Books from Independent Mystery Booksellers. Other titles include David Levien, City of the Sun and Susan Cummins Miller, Hoodoo.

Oh, how I have missed Sharan Newman! I'm not alone - fans of her wonderful Catherine LeVendeur series are legion - and I'm also not alone in being not so sure about Newman switching her locale from 12th century France to 19th century Portland, Oregon. But I should have had a little more faith - Newman is one of the more gifted narrative storytellers writing at the moment, and her gift does not fail her in this latest, and very welcome, outing. Lots of the themes in this book will be familiar to any Newman devotee.

Emily Stratton, a recently widowed mother moving back to the States from a lifetime spent in China, is more relieved than saddened that her brutal, coarse husband Horace is dead. With her sixteen year old son, Robert, she sets up a household in Portland in the luxurious home Horace had bought and furnished before dying suddenly on the trip home. Emily is thus truly a stranger in a strange land - not only has she never lived in Portland, she's never lived in America, and she desperately misses the Chinese language, clothing and food she grew up with. The hoopskirts and corsets current in 1868 America are a puzzle to her and a decided disadvantage. As with Catherine LeVendeur, Emily is thus an insider and an outsider at the same time. Quickly introduced to both her husband's business partners and the sister and brother-in-law and nieces she has never met, Emily attempts to settle into Portland, while at the same time being disquieted at what she finds as she combs through her husband's books, to the complete dismay of his partners. When her Chinese cook is found shot to death, Emily's worries deepen, and they aren't helped by her ignorance of her son Robert's wild behavior. She thinks he's an angel - the servants know otherwise.

The mystery itself is twisty and complex - I didn't' foresee the ending and/or the ultimate villain of the piece - plus, I learned the true meaning of the term "being Shanghaied". As with the Catherine books, Newman's eye for the unjust - here the treatment of the Chinese as virtual slaves by Americans - as well as a feminist story arc for her main character, anchor the story. Emily, like Catherine, never seems an anachronism or a polemic, though, just a smart survivor. When you're finished, I would be surprised if you weren't both in floods of tears, as I was, as well as eager for the next installment.

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