Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Limehouse Text (Barker & Llwellyn #3)

I finished this book a week ago and I still cannot think of a good way to review it.  It's a compelling mystery with really fun characters, but it also made me very uncomfortable in its treatment of the Chinese people living in London at the time of the story.



My friend Shannon, who introduced me to this series, said that each one tackles a different microcosm of London, which is pretty cool.  So, in the first book, we learned about the Jewish community in London.  In To Kingdom Come, it was the Irish revolutionaries.  The Limehouse Text is both an investigation into the murder of Cyrus Barker's former assistant, Quong, as well as a monastic text that contains some very dangerous information.  Barker is a very open-minded man: he was born in China and grew up there, eventually participating in a civil war and then traveling and learning as much as he could about different cultures.

In reality, I doubt that a man like him could have existed in 1870s England.  Imperialism was In, White Man's Burden was the job of the day, and the British had their noses (and armies) in several continents.  However, I do appreciate what Will Thomas does with the Cyrus Barker character--he's a foil for the ignorance and close-mindedness of the everyday Englishman (or Welshman, or Irishman, as the case may be).  Some reviewers have accused Barker of being perfect all the time--he's not.  He's made mistakes in every single book.  What I like is that he takes them in stride and learns from them, which is still something I struggle with profoundly.

On the other hand, his current assistant, Thomas Llwellyn, is idealistic but a product of the times: he's leery of "Chinamen" and Jewish people, but learns that hey, we're all humans together, and that we can learn a lot from different perspectives.  At this point in his life, Llwellyn is great friends with a coterie of Jewish scholars and they all hang out at this pub.  They're kind of adorable together.

Llwellyn's other weakness is a pretty face.  He makes rather a hash of things when he impulsively follows Barker's veiled female friend who is also Harm (the Pekingese)'s caretaker.  There's a brawl in London's Chinatown, which is called Limehouse, and not only does Llwellyn throw a lady out of a window into a mud bank (just piling on the charm, eh?) but he also engages in a street fight with some members of a Triad.  They recognize his fighting style as having Chinese characteristics, since Llwellyn learned from Barker and Barker in China.  This puts the community on edge.

Meanwhile, Barker, Llwellyn, and Ho (owner of ... Ho's, the secret hideout for rogues and purveyor of the best don't-ask-what-it-is-but-it's-delicious food in London) witness the murder of a policeman who found a clue in the year-old murder of Quong.  The investigation once again becomes deadly, with Scotland Yard arresting Ho mainly because he's Chinese.  Ah, racism.

Lots of people get wounded in this book: Llwellyn, Mac the butler, and even Barker himself.  But why?  Why all this shooting and beating and death-touching (more on that in a moment)?

Before his death, Quong pawned an item: a book in Chinese.  It was, in fact, a text stolen from a monastery in Jiangsu Province, a theft which caused the death of two monks.  The body count surrounding this book mounts quickly, and Barker finds that most of these people died of seemingly natural causes, like kidney failure.  What's unnatural is that they all died around the same time period and they all came in contact with this text.  So what's in the book that's to kill for?

Basically, it's a compendium of very high-level fighting techniques, including dim mak, a "death touch" that does not kill right away, but takes its time and can manifest as any number of actual causes of death, including ... kidney failure.  Ouch.

I mean, it's a compelling story (although I'm still unsure as to how Barker got out of the scrape he was in), and Llwellyn learned his lessons, as usual.  What made me rather uncomfortable was the author's use of a "Chinese accent" for some, but not all, of the Chinese characters.

Ho's command of English is excellent, but when faced with the pushy Scotland Yard, he becomes taciturn and says things like, "No one go in."  In his situation, being a suspect, I would have employed my excellent command of English to throw off the Inspector's suspicions.  Again, when we meet Quong's father, Dr. Quong, he tells Barker, "You still hire ... Find my son killer.  Come chop chop tell me."  When Israel Zangwill and Llwellyn investigate the mysterious Triad leader Mr. K'ing, they go to an opium den where a boy asks, "No smoky one pipey?"  Llwellyn also comments on "slanted eyes" and the shock of seeing an East End woman married to "an Oriental."

So I asked the We Need Diverse Books Twitter account about accents in books, and the line between character and caricature.  I read some excellent articles on the subject, and did a little Wikipedia browsing on what's commonly called "Pidgin."  Chinese Pidgin English is a legitimate means of communication with its own lexicon, morphology, and grammar.  It came from the need of English-speaking and Chinese-speaking traders to communicate.  For example, the "chop chop" is actually a stand-in for a Cantonese classifier to a noun.  We don't do this often in English, but it's common in Cantonese.  There's no real translation, but onomatopoeically, "chop chop" gets the point of "hurry" or "fast" across.  I can see that the author was trying to be authentic in how people would have spoken, but today, it comes across as mocking the way Chinese people speak English.

The fight scene is rather anticlimactic, as it doesn't really end the story, and I wondered if it was really necessary.  Barker has a name among the Chinese: Shi Shi Ji.  They almost ... venerate him, and that bothers me as well.  Here's a white Scotsman who comes along and does everything as well as or better than people of that culture do it, and they all think it's great?  I would be resentful, for starters.  To be fair, Barker is a pretty humble man in that respect, and brushes off a lot of this "Oh, great Shi Shi Ji!" business, but as a modern reader, he does come across as the White Savior.

I am, however, still looking forward to the next adventures of Barker and Llwellyn, Private Enquiry Agent and Assistant.

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