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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Bad Traffic, by Simon Lewis

The illuminated signs outside the bus window all said the same thing -- 'You do not understand.'

This is the essence of the experience of Inspector Ma Jian, a Chinese policeman searching for his troubled daughter in England, in the new thriller Bad Traffic, by Simon Lewis.

In the middle of the night, Jian receives a call from his daughter, pleading for help. She is abruptly cut off, and her phone rendered inoperable. With no other information available, Jian sets off to find her. All he knows is her address at university, but he quickly discovers she had dropped her classes and moved out three months earlier. He has no idea where else to look for her, or how to reach her. Unable to speak, read, write, or even understand English, Jian faces an impossible task.

His experience as a police officer helps him discover a cold trail. But his troubles multiply. He finds his daughter's phone, on which is saved a brief video of her being stabbed to death. The images give him a clue to identifying her killer, and revenge becomes his goal. He must summon all his wits and experience to overcome an endless series of pitfalls and setbacks, and then just to survive.

Merging into this storyline is a subplot involving Ding Ming, a young Chinese peasant who has been smuggled into England to work as little more than an indentured slave. The promise of a wage incomparable in China lures him and others into this illegal bargain. But the exorbitant fee for smuggling, and the expenses for food and lodging, mean he will be working for twenty years before paying off his debt.

Ding Ming has studied English, but his language skill is a crude utility. His path crosses with Jian, who uses Ding Ming as a translator and guide. Ding Ming's confusion increases, as he is unable to tell who is the good guy and who is the bad guy. At times he thinks Jian will help him, and at other times he thinks he would be better off with his gang master. Whatever situation he finds himself in, he soon worries that the other is preferable.

Though the signs at the beginning of the novel tell Jian that he does not understand, he has no doubts. He knows what crimes have been committed, and he knows what he must do. He does not struggle with questions of morality, or even legality. He struggles with himself, the realisation that he did not have a close relationship with his daughter, and therefore has failed her. Ding Ming, however, is never clear about what is right or what is wrong. The place where he is taken to work was known in China as Gold Mountain, but all he sees is mud. This mud comes to symbolise his outlook on events. In his desire to make things work, he rationalises everything. Ding Ming is the one who does not understand.

This is the spot of our disappointment with the novel. Though the story begins and ends with Jian, much of the middle is given over to Ding Ming. Even when the two characters are together, events are often related through Ding Ming. Jian has 37 scenes totaling 145 pages; Ding Ming has 26 scenes totaling 115 pages; and three other characters combine for 19 scenes totaling 90 pages. The result is that Jian narrates only 45% of the scenes in the novel, or 41% of the pages. The book cover states "An Inspector Jian Novel" but there is simply not enough of Inspector Jian to justify this for us. It is that subtitle that creates unfulfilled expectations for us, and ultimately disappoints.

Inspector Jian is an interesting character more than capable of carrying an entire novel. A jian is an ancient Chinese double-edged straight sword, and this weapon captures the inspector's personality. He is no supercop, but a flawed man who has superficial relationships with his daughter and his lovers, who believes the end justifies the means, and who has a tarnished past. Fully exploring the costs of knowledge, instead of displaying the foibles of naivete, could have resulted in a much richer story.

This is a minor flaw in an otherwise compelling novel. Mr. Lewis has written a very accessible book. Short, declarative sentences make the writing clear and concise. Combined with scenes that average no more than five pages, the pace is swift. The lead characters can be thoughtful and reflective, yet they are always active, never captured in a dull moment. Any of us could find ourselves faced with similar situations, making up for failures, or compensating for inadequacies. The universal threats lend an immediacy to the story, and give the reader reason to cheer for the compromised protagonists.

Near the end, as Ding Ming blames himself for all the troubles that have occurred, he decides the reason for his suffering is so that others might benefit. He was a poor man and the lot of a poor man was the consumption of bitterness.... This echoes throughout the novel, in all of the characters. They all have ambitions that exceed their abilities. The nefarious characters prey upon these ambitions. In Ding Ming, and Jian's daughter, and several of the minor characters, we see how easily they become victims, how thin the line is that separates good from evil, and what a slippery slope to doom lies on the other side of that line. It is often too easy to take advantage of what is foreign to us, but that is only because we do not understand.