French Concession

French Concession.



By Xiao Bai HarperCollins/Paperback/351 pages/$38.39/ Pre-order from Books Kinokuniya/3.5/5

The translation of a Chinese novel into English for Western audiences usually means the book has topped bestseller lists or is a literary gem of an award winner.

But French Concession, first published in the Chinese language in 2011, is reportedly neither, enjoying only moderate success in China.

Publisher HarperCollins is said to have acquired the rights to the novel as it was drawn to its suspense noir genre.

Indeed, the Shanghai-based Xiao Bai, in his second novel and first to be translated, captures atmos- pherically the scenes and tensions of old Shanghai.

The year is 1931 and the city is akin to "a volcano about to erupt", unsettled by political intrigue and shifting alliances at a time of communists, insurgents and counter-revolutionaries.

In the city's French Concession, which at the time was largely occupied and governed by the French, what appears to be the perfect crime has been committed - the assassination of a politico who was under the watch of heavy security forces.

Xiao Bai’s intricate eye for detail transports the reader to a Shanghai between two world wars and accompanying maps help one to picture the scene.

His beguiling wife, Leng, disappears after the murder.

A fleeting encounter with her charms the story's protagonist, Franco-Chinese photojournalist Weiss Hsueh, who flits across alliances.

He also harbours suspicions that his lover, a Russian with the exotic-sounding name Therese Irxmayer - and pseudonym Lady Holly - is being unfaithful to him. She turns out to be a gun-toting firearms dealer.

Eager to please both femme fatales, Hsueh slowly finds himself drawn into a complicated web of political intrigue, romantic dalliances and espionage.

His insider status means he gets roped in as a sleuth for the French Concession Police. But the often clueless Hsueh, in trying to play the right cards, sometimes concocts evidence and provides vague clues.

Xiao Bai's intricate eye for detail transports the reader to a Shanghai between two world wars and accompanying maps help one to picture the scene.

The characters may be fictional, but the historical background and story details, from the names of streets to descriptions of items, are reportedly factual.

Like most translated novels, however, it is bogged down by the somewhat excessive use of analogies - a number of which, such as "her beige coat rippled as if a carp were squirming under it" seem rather awkward in English.

That aside, the immersive story proves to be quite a good read and an effective page- turner.

If you like this, read: Midnight In Peking by Paul French (Penguin, 2013 reprint, $25.63, Books Kinokuniya). A Chinese noir whodunnit by a Shanghai-based author, about a young woman murdered in a horrific way.

Walter Sim

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 02, 2015, with the headline '(No headline) - AUG02C'. Print Edition | Subscribe