(Reviewed by Poornima Apte FEB 21, 2009)
Even if they are both from China, Inspector Ma Jian and Ding Ming could not be more different. Jian had once been a Red Guard and as the book opens, is portrayed as an inattentive father and smooth-talking seducer—someone who gets by in modern China by means of all the right connections. Ding Ming, on the other hand, is a young peasant who learned a little English thinking he would be able to secure a decent job. Sadly he lacks the connections to make it happen.
The two men's paths converge head-on in an alien land: England. Even if he doesn't know a word of English, Inspector Jian boards a plane to the country as soon as he hears his daughter's call for help. Wei Wei was supposedly pursuing her studies at Leeds but a mysterious plea for help from her cell phone tells Jian she is in serious trouble.
For his part, Ding Ming and his bride, Little Ye, land on England's shores as part of a human smuggling racket. The two are soon separated and Ding Ming is assured repeatedly by a surly supervisor, known simply as Kevin, that things will work out well in the end. Little does Ding Ming know that he is now indentured labor and that his wife will soon meet a similarly depressing fate.
Once at Leeds University, Inspector Jian finds out that Wei Wei dropped out of school many months ago and had instead started working at a local restaurant run by a suspicious Chinese guy called Black Fort. As it turns out, Black Fort has his fingers in many pies. Ding Ming's smuggling ring is also his. From this point on, the paths of the two main characters converge. “So much of detective work was about spotting things that didn't quite fit—but he couldn't do that here, where everything was strange to him,” Lewis writes of Jian. So the inspector recruits Ding Ming, who speaks a smattering of English, to make at least some sense of the world around him.
At this point, the story seems to stall somewhat as author Simon Lewis focuses too long on the wild ride the two share, in trying to track down Wei Wei or her abductors. At first, Ding Ming is not even sure that Jian is the good cop that he is and he tries his best to escape and go back to the indentured work. The slow banter and wisecracks that develop between the two as they drive on through the country will remind readers of dialog from movies like “Lethal Weapon”--good for a quick laugh—but after a while you just want to get to the final destination already.
Bad Traffic is at its best when it describes the cultural confusion each character experiences. “Ding Ming was impressed that there was a refrigerator, not something he associated with kitchens,” Lewis writes of Ding Ming's visit to a local home. “Back home fridges were kept on display in living rooms.”
Simon Lewis is a travel writer and his writing reflects a sharp understanding of not just the Chinese landscape but also of its cultural mores. “The street was eerily quiet, with none of the life Ding Ming was used to: no hubbub of conversation or hum of machinery, no gangs of old women playing mah jong or youths playing pool, no theatre, no color,” he writes. “There were people around—their televisions glowed behind drawn curtains—they just weren't very social,” Ding Ming assumes of the native Brits.
Bad Traffic also shows the enormous cultural differences brought about in China in the span of just a few decades. This difference is reflected in the book's central characters. “Was there ever such a gilded generation as the Urban Chinese born in the eighties?,” the inspector wonders about his daughter Wei Wei and Chinese urban youth like her. “Their whole lives they had surfed the edge of a glorious wave of progress. Taught to aspire to a bicycle and a watch, televisions and fridges had come, then cars and computers. For them the world could be trusted to just keep on delivering the goods. They had known nothing but bounty, so there was something green about them. They were as alien as foreigners.” As one navigates Bad Traffic, the reader is particularly struck by just how many alien factors the two Chinese men must navigate. It's not only the natives who are a source of mystery to Ma Jian. The rapid surge in wealth and the strongly delineated class structure in contemporary China mean that Ding Ming and even his own daughter, remain an enigma to Jian.
Nevertheless, she is his daughter. And Inspector Jian will do everything in his capacity to find out what happened to her. Wei Wei never did like her father's counsel. “He sounded like the Party Commissar off some crappy old film, spouting slogans,” she once pointed out. But in Bad Traffic, Inspector Jian sticks to his own jaded advice: “Always try to make things better. Always push for improvement,” as he chases after his daughter's abductors.
The intermarriage of comedy and suspense crisply woven together would have made Bad Traffic good enough. But Lewis is at his best when he shows the cultural confusion and alienation each character experiences. There is a small scene in the book where Jian suffers a panic attack because he sees men in uniform scouting around. He assumes he is being hounded down by policemen. Turns out they are just appliance mechanics. Through this one scene, Lewis manages to convey not just the inherent humor in the situation but also the difficulty of the task facing the Chinese inspector. It is small situational elements like these that elevate Bad Traffic beyond the routine thriller and that make it a more pithy and satisfying read.
- Amazon readers rating: from 27 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Bad Traffic at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Go (1998; 1999 in US)
Inspector Jian Novels:
- Bad Traffic (January 2008; December 2008 in US)
- Rough Guide to Shanghai (March 2008)
- Rough Guide to Beijing (April 2008)
- Rough Guide to China (May 2008)
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- Official website for Simon Lewis
- Crime Time interview with Simon Lewis
- Independent review of Bad Traffic
- It's a Crime review of Bad Traffic
- Eurocrime review of Bad Traffic
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About the Author:
Simon Lewis was born in Wales and grew up in Scotland.
He studied Art at Goldmiths College in London, then worked as a travel writer, researching the Rough Guides to China, Beijing, and Shanghai as well as writing for newspapers and magazines.
He spends half his time in Brixton, London, and the rest in Asia, mostly China and Japan.