In a grim historical thriller, a serial killer strikes in 1920s Shanghai

1920s Shanghai is the setting for Death in Shanghai.

1920s Shanghai harbored both the best and the worst of China in the early decades after the fall of the Qing Dynasty. It was the largest city in the country, the most prosperous, and the most dynamic. Since the mid-19th century, Europeans and Americans had controlled the wealthiest sections, including the vibrant commercial neighborhoods along the Whangpoo River (now the Huangpu). The British and Americans managed the International Settlement; the French ruled the French Concession. And criminal gangs controlled all the rest. Refugees from Soviet Russia and expatriates from dozens of other countries crowded the international neighborhoods, lending a cosmopolitan air to the city. This is the setting for M. J. Lee’s grim historical detective thriller, Death in Shanghai.


Death in Shanghai (Inspector Danilov #1) by M. J. Lee (2015) 381 pages

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


A Russian detective in 1920s Shanghai

Detective Inspector Pyotr Danilov of Central Police Station in the International Settlement had arrived in Shanghai in 1925 as a refugee from the Russian Revolution. For many years, he had served as a detective in the Imperial Police in Minsk. Danilov’s investigation of a series of murders unfolds over five days late in February 1928. As we learn early in the tale, a serial killer is on the prowl. He’s convinced “he needed to cleanse the city of its degenerates, to remove the bloated maggots that fed on its flesh. He had made a start in other places, of course, but somehow, it never felt right.”

Although he has lived in the city for only three years, Danilov understands its meaning in the Chinese context. “Shanghai was the big city. The magnet that attracted all the riff raff, scoundrels, bad eggs, ne’er-do-wells and thugs from all over China, drawn like moths to an illegal flame for its vice and its money. Above all, for its money.” Danilov recognizes that the best the police can hope to accomplish is “like the Dutch boy and his dike, just about [keep it] under control.”

An impressive if not always likable character

Inspector Danilov is an impressive if not always likable character. He is brilliant, insightful, and doggedly persistent. He also is afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder, forever compelled to regiment everything in his surroundings. Most importantly, he is arrogant and disdainful of the incompetent and often corrupt officers who surround him. However, Danilov has drawn a lucky card in the young detective constable assigned to him, the Eurasian son of a Scottish policeman who had made a good name for himself in years past. Both Danilov and David (Hong Yee) Strachan understand what the young man’s father had taught him: “A good police force is one that catches more criminals than it employs.”

Death in Shanghai is both a compelling historical novel and a genuinely suspenseful detective story. Unfortunately, though, the ending robs the tale of its plausibility. My advice is to skip the Epilogue. Because I found it so disappointing, I won’t be reviewing any subsequent entries in the Inspector Danilov series.

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