This Chinese Wall of a novel, which rolls on for 509 pages before laying its last brick, yields something less than the sum of its many, many parts. And Richard Field—or, rather, Bradby’s overweening reliance on the character Richard Field—is to blame. Field, the disgraced son of a suicidal failure and now a Special Branch agent, has come to Shanghai in 1926 in order to find redemption, and Bradby keeps the reader at Field’s side for every step of that quest. We’re with Field as he surveys the luxury apartment where Lena Orlov lies dead, her lingerie-clad body rent with brutal stab wounds. We’re with him as he navigates the phalanx of banks, trading houses, and other institutions of Western power that line the Shanghai Bund. We’re with him as he prowls the squalid streets where wizened old men pull rickshaws by the light of red paper lanterns. The scenery, at every turn, is compelling; it’s the company that starts to wear thin after a while.
Clinging to one man’s feverish point of view works well enough in a taut noir piece, and plainly Bradby is striving for a noir effect: Field’s partner in crime-solving, an American named Caprisi, never says, “Forget it, Dick. It’s Chinatown,” but you keeps expecting him to. Yet this bulky saga—a tale of imperial corruption and sexual predation, of arrogant English businessmen and desperate White Russian exiles, of stern Scottish policemen and cagy Chinese natives—cries out for the use of multiple perspectives. As viewed through Field’s angry, humorless gaze, scenes of potential richness and variety come off as drab, repetitive, and all too similar to scenes from other stories about dashing, alienated Brits in exotic foreign lands. (Influences on Bradby clearly include, along with the American tough-guy tradition, both the British high tradition of Conrad, Maugham, and Greene and the British low tradition of Sax Rohmer and Ian Fleming.) Among his other heroics, Field manages to rescue from seeming doom a tragic Russian beauty named Natasha. But he’s powerless to give life, all on his own, to a thriller of such epic magnitude as this one.