Monday, 6 April 2009

“Bad Traffic”, Simon Lewis

Simon Lewis' second book, coming after a long interval, is a highly innovative work. Undeniably a crime novel, whose central protagonist is a policeman, but "Bad Traffic" is enormously divorced from the traditional concept of the police procedural. "Bad Traffic" in fact at times feels much more akin to a chase novel, such as John Buchan's "39 Steps".

As the author of a number of guidebooks to China, including "The Rough Guide to China", Lewis is well placed to portray Chinese characters. My knowledge of China is pretty fleeting, based on a slightly hectic week there in 2008, but the characters rings true, and the brief scenes set in China itself are also identifiably Chinese.

"Bad Traffic" is not just about one man's search for his missing daughter, this central tenet is used as a supporting beam off of which many, often brief, side stories paining a rich picture of the Chinese in Britain are hung. The incomprehension with which Chinese look at common or garden features of British life combine with the grinding depressing racism permeating so much of society are neatly portrayed in brief vignettes punctuating the novel.

The protagonist, Inspector Jian is a deeply flawed character. He is not a 'good' policeman, fond of bribes, a serial womaniser, and quick to resort to sickening violence, and "Bad Traffic" is largely a story about his quest for redemption. This however is not an easy passage, and by the end of the work there are still questions as to whether Jian has been 'saved' by his experience in the UK. Indeed throughout one is reminded, perhaps fittingly, of the Confucian proverb, that before setting out to seek vengeance, you should dig two graves. This sense of fatalism pervades the novel, consistently trying to prepare the reader for bad news, which is perhaps even more powerful than delivering it.

The heart of the story concerns Chinese organised crime in the UK, and specifically the exploitation of the immigrant community and the real horror of people trafficking. The casual disregard human life is held in is powerfully displayed, and the naïve desperation of the people seeking a new life on the 'golden mountain' (as they refer to Britain) is made painfully clear. The loyalty migrant worker Ding Ming shows to his English gangmaster, an appalling human being called Kevin, despite the vileness of his treatment, fascinates and horrifies at the same time. The fact that we all know illegal immigration happens, and that migrant workers are treated truly dreadfully, makes "Bad Traffic" feel all too real in its bleakness.

Every book has its flaws. One that I still can't quite grasp and keep having to revisit to check and make sure I've got it straight is the setting of the plot in both Leeds, where Jian's daughter goes to university, and where much of the story is set, and Liverpool, where the gangster Black Fort is based. I know they're closer than you sometimes think, but it jarred somewhat to think about the casual way in which characters flit between the two. A lot of the impact of the book is tied up in its perpetual motion, but this leg struck me as being unnecessary and, in its seeming unlikeliness, needlessly distracted. If, of course, someone knows better, and actually Lewis is on the money describing a Leeds-Liverpool crime axis then I am perfectly happy to eat humble pie!

This is a really good book about the Chinese in the UK. Charles Cumming's "Typhoon" worked very well as a thriller set in China, and as works like Misha Glenny's brilliant "McMafia" show, there's a rich vein of crime to explore in China. Bearing this in mind I was struck by Robert Wilson's recent comment that there was significant reader opposition to setting a novel in China. Yes it's absolutely an alien place, but the juxtaposition between the ultramodern and the atmospheric rambling hutongs you find in downtown Beijing strikes me as a magnificent backdrop for crime related fiction. One can only hope that writers like Simon Lewis, who combine a level of country and cultural knowledge with a clear aptitude for writing crime fiction can exploit this setting, which is being left deliberately bare by other authors.


  1. Excellent review! I did not pick that up about the Leeds-Liverpool, so look forward to knowing the answer, if you find it.

    I enjoy the books of Catherine Sampson: she's written four now in her series (Robin Ballantine, journalist). The first two were set in UK, the third about half in China and the fourth mostly in China. Very much my cup of tea.

  2. Lisa See also wrote three crime novels with China as the setting. Unfortunately, she then turned to romance writing. I continue to miss her crime novels.

  3. Clearly there is more for me to find in Chinese-set fiction, and how fitting that Catherine Sampson should be a cup of tea! Will also pick my Lisa Sees with care - not of course, that I have any rooted objection to romantic fiction - I've got "Before Sunrise" on in the background, which I think qualifies, and probably destroys any pretensions to be a hard bitten crime reader...

    In my whistlestop mentioning of authors who've tackled crime in China I forgot to mention Tom Bradby's "Master of Rain", which for me marked his coming of age as an author - even if 1930s Shanghai is, I would argue, substantively different to the China of today.