The Hatchet Man (1976) is the second mystery in the Yellowthread Street series by the Australian writer William Marshall. It follows up on the wonderfully chaotic Yellowthread Street (1975), a book recommended to me by my mother about a year ago. Like Westlake’s Parker series, the Yellowthread experience is to read the first book and then immediately scour secondhand bookstores for the others.
“Yellowthread” refers to a street in the fictional Hong Bay district of 1970’s Hong Kong, and the overworked police station. The Yellowthread station is staffed by a mixture of Europeans, Asians and Eurasians by ethnicity, and Marshall does not gloss over the consequences of having these different races working in close proximity, especially when interacting with a populace frequently at their worst, or their most vulnerable.
THM is a police procedural novel about the pursuit of a killer who shoots his victims in the back of the head, under the concealment of dark movie theaters. Given the reputation of Hong Bay, the first murder is dismissed by the newspapers and the city headquarters as another gangland killing. When The Hatchet Man strikes again, however, the pressure starts to mount on Yellowthread Street to track the maniac down.
The Hatchet Man name is almost certainly a reference to the 1932 film The Hatchet Man, about a Chinese hitman who follows orders from his Tong bosses. Although the script’s characters are all Chinese, the studio felt the need their own (non-Asian) stars to headline the release. Furthermore, most of the cast also had to be non-Asian, as Asian actors filmed next to Westerners in makeup would make Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young look ridiculous. Even though the movie had some Asian actors in minor roles, its main cast embodied the racist system of movie staffing that lingers on as “whitewashing” to this day.
Despite these themes and the violence integral to a chronic murder mystery, THM is actually a very entertaining and often funny book. Marshall rapidly shifts the settings and points of view between characters (major and incidental) to show the investigation from all sorts of angles, often summing up emotions and actions using repeated phrases:
Feiffer thought they were no closer. He felt they were closer. He knew they were no closer. He thought — he said to himself, unheard by the others in the Detectives’ Room, “We’re closer. We are. We’re closer.” Something — there was something there — they were closer. He knew they were. But to say exactly why or how or in what way, that eluded him totally.
Aside from The Hatchet Man’s actual motivation for his killing spree, most of the humor comes from getting to know the police officers …
- the weary Chief Inspector Harry Feiffer
- the Irish-Chinese detective Christopher Kwan O’Yee, a family man given to panic attacks
- the officers Auden and Spenser, who accomplish their police-work between arguments
- the young Chinese constables, who have to handle a Parkinson’s patient who is deathly afraid of uniformed Chinese officers
- the rather ghoulish Doctor McArthur, the medical inspector
Eventually, the book focuses around The Hatchet Man and O’Yee, who first encounters him at a theatre lobby. While the killer is nondescript and without any relationships, O’Yee is his own biggest critic while he tries to fulfill his roles as both a cop and a father. He can get flustered by the actions of civilians, such as when a group of Chinese students jump in and out of the path of his car. At home for breakfast (after sleeping on the couch for three hours), he discloses what he’s working on in front of the kids, and gets rebuked by Emily O’Yee for it. He’s the most interesting character of THM, capable of true heroism but mostly trying his best not to flounder.
Maybe THM does not quite match the humor of the first in the series, Yellowthread Street, since we do not meet as many criminals, bystanders and the like in this story. Nonetheless, it’s clearly a good followup and an encouraging indication for the rest of the series. Recommended. 7/10.