Lisa Brackmann’s new novel, Hour of the Rat promises to be a very good international crime thriller, and it lives up to that billing very well. The second in what looks to be a very important series, the book brings back Ellie Cooper from her electrifying debut, 2010’s Rock Paper Tiger — and what an encore performance it is.
Ellie McEnroe is an Iraqi war vet, constantly reminded of the wound she suffered to her leg and haunted by her experiences in the war. Having followed her now ex-husband, a one time army interrogator, Trey, to China she finds herself adrift — from her marriage, from her country and from “normal” people. Adding to her on-the-edge psyche is her mother, a born again Christian despite her serial bad relationships with seemingly every man she meets. Ellie is now, though thoroughly unqualified, working as an artist’s agent for her one time love interest Lao Zhang, whose work is viewed as subversive by the Chinese government.
Seeking a bit or release from her chaotic life she decides to do a favor for a fellow wounded Iraqi vet, Dog Turner. Dog’ brother, Jason is a politically active left winger whose politics seem more driven by his hormones than any idealism. He has gone missing in picturesque Yangshuo, a famous tourist destination. Before she can begin her quest to find Jason, Ellie is asked to “have tea,” a euphemism for come in for questioning, with a Pompadoured Chinese Bureaucrat who works for The Domestic Security Directorate. The DSD’s motto translates to something like “Leniency for those who confess. Severity for those who refuse” They are interested in Ellie’s relationship with Lao Zhang. Why he would employ an American who has no training in art to sell his paintings? Perhaps she holds this position of employment because she works for the American government? More importantly, Pompadour wants to talk with Lao Zhang. Ellie has a clandestine way to contact Lao, through a secret and massive interactive online game that is more a place for dissidents to meet and exchange intelligence than an actual game. Ellie explains that she doesn’t speak with Lao often, and only then by email. This doesn’t satisfy the DSD, but they choose to watch her instead of throw her in jail.
Finally free to travel in search of the illusive Jason, Ellie finds her mother has insinuated herself into the trip, so when Ellie adjusts her mind, stocks her supply of pain killers, and accepts the journey as a sort of mother-daughter get away, she is less than pleased to find out her mother is bringing along her latest flame, “that nice Mr. Zhou next door.” When she peruses the few leads that Dog could give her, she finds herself pulled into a world where the DSD is following her, her ex-husband and his new love, “that bitch, Lily Ping,” keep showing up in the out of the way places she travels to, and she keeps getting emails and phone calls from a secretive Chinese billionaire art collector bent on acquiring Lao Zhang’s work even though Ellie has received instructions to take his work off the market.
Ellie’s Percocet and beer fueled search for Jason leads her through back alleys for secretive meetings, dumpling shops, the art world and virtual reality eventually taking her to some of China’s most beautiful a surreal landscapes. Ellie’s search uncovers a very secretive and dangerous biotech company that might just be involved in genetically altering food crops. Pitted against this conglomerate are people that know or knew Jason and are involved in eco-terrorism. The many characters she meets are entertaining and through them the many facets of the country that is China are revealed. We meet shop girls, factory workers Uigar dissidents, and the quirky people who populate the Chinese art world…and don’t forget the cats. Brackman’ll make you feel like you are walking the densely populated streets, eating in the small shops and trying to find cold beer.
If Brackmann had stopped there, we would have one of the best thrillers of the year. She manages to weave so many topical subjects and culturally revealing snap shots of the real China into the story, and never lets the detail bog it down. The many quirky characters are brought to life on the page with a realism that few writers can obtain. The sense of place, both in the fantastical locales and in the dirty mean streets, the subversive online game — which is more virtual reality hangout than game — and the Chinese art world make the reader feel like they have been here before. The egotistic and threatening government officials feel like government functionaries the world over. And Ellie herself, a strong women, yet vulnerable. Flawed yet moral and with a sense of loyalty, is a character the reader will fall in love with, like that slightly wild younger sibling. And without preaching, she brings to the reader’s mind the damage our recent wars can do to the people that fight them and the sense of alienation they are often left with. In short, Brackmann has used all the writer’s tools effortlessly and flawlessly. She has told a story that both entertains and educates, and the plot, with its many facets and many characters, is still easy to follow and get hooked on. But she doesn’t stop there.
Since Raymond Chandler and the hardboiled world of Philip Marlowe, the noir/hardboiled/detective story has always been dialog-centric — whether that dialog has been snappy repartee between characters or the inner dialog as the protagonist struggles with their own morals or the pieces of a puzzle. Chandler was fond of saying that he only captured the language of the common man. Most critics think he took that hard bitten and cynical prose of the street and made it poetry. Regardless, hardboiled dialog, both darkly humorous and threateningly dangerous has become the trademark of the genre.
Many authors have tried to capture it, reinvent it as their own and parodied it to where it became more caricature than character. Most modern and hugely successful authors that write in the spirit of Chandler for the past twenty or thirty years avoid it; Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder, Walter Mosely’s EZ Rawlin’s weren’t smart mouthed, quick with a line characters, their street wise style was displayed through their inner dialog and the dark side of their own persona’s. James Ellroy developed a style and a language that was a mix of police vernacular and jazz-drug patios that is uniquely his own, but doesn’t even pay homage to the ghost of Philip Marlowe. But nobody has updated it. Taken those Chandleresque phrases and brought them into the twenty-first century with any success. Until now.
What those who ended up with parodies of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade forgot was Chandler’s dialog was the real speech of the man on the street — the common man. What Brackmann has done with the dialog in Hour Of The Rat and Rock, Paper, Tiger before it is to take the modern language of the common man – or woman in this case, and make of it a modern, twenty-first century hardboiled dialog. When Ellie is being questioned by the authorities her answers are both sass and jive, but they aren’t lifted from some 1940s “B” movie They are, however, the responses a modern, hard bitten woman such as Iraqi war vet Ellie might respond with. When she runs up against tough street thugs or reluctant witnesses the dialog is both in your face and street slang. In short, Brackmann has topped off a perfect, darkly humorous, hip novel and gone one better by writing dialog that is Chandleresque yet thug modern. She has set the bar high for anyone wishing to write at the top of their game in the noir genre.
When Ellie is showing Jason’s photo around to doormen at night clubs and a guy hits on her and invites her for a drink later on. “‘Maybe,’ I say, and smile back, because he helped me and he’s sort of cute, in a slouchy, borderline-delinquent kind of way.” It could be Chandler writing in The High Window, “A check girl in peach-bloom Chinese pajamas came over to take my hat and disapprove of my clothes. She had eyes like strange sins.”
When Ellie reflects on her loss of faith and thinks, “When people talk about how your faith gets tested, they always say that trials make your faith stronger. What they don’t say is that sometimes faith just dissolves like desert sand between your fingers.” I am reminded of a scene from The Little Sister where Marlowe “…” put the duster away folded with the dust in it, leaned back and just sat, not smoking, not even thinking. I was a blank man. I had no face, no meaning, no personality, hardly a name. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t even want a drink. I was the page from yesterday’s calendar crumpled at the bottom of the waste basket.”
It’s a realism that mirrors life. Yet the book is full of wry humor, just like life. It’s retroflective in places, and wildly entertaining in others. Just like life. Brackmann has pulled of a wonderful piece of work that will be quoted, cited and reread for all of its nuances for a long time to come.