When reading genre paperbacks from the middle 20th century, it’s important to heed the context in which they were written. Otherwise, we’re preoccupied by what would be unforgivable insensitivity, pervasive sexism, by today’s continually evolving internet standards.* That said, a book about a mad bomber is going to read very differently theses days than it did in 1976, for reasons that start with our exposure to the consequences of terrorism this century.
The third book in the series of William Marshall’s Yellowthread Street mysteries, Gelignite (1976) follows The Hatchet Man, which I liked but recommend a little less enthusiastically than I would the first book, Yellowthread Street. Like the first two, this story is a police procedural that beings with scenes of gruesome and seemingly arbitrary violence. Most of the familiar characters are occupied with collecting pieces of dismembered corpses washed into a local beach. There is an extended discussion of Inspector O’Yee’s conflicted feelings about the obligation to recover the complete bodies of all persons, while a crowd watches from atop the seawall. This is followed by a scene wherein a Chinese ivory dealer opens an anonymous letter bomb and gets blown to bits.
In between the murders and gore are the episodes of comic confusion and bickering customary to the cramped melting pot that is the Yellowthread Street police station of the Hong Bay neighborhood, Hong Kong.
Mr. Leung, a sedate, prosperous man in his middle fifties who sometimes regretted his decision to enter commerce and not a monastery, sighed.
In the detectives’ room of the Yellowthread Street Police Station, Auden shouted at the top of his voice, “I”M GOING DEAF!”
Someone out in the corridor — one of the uniformed men — shouted back, ‘Shut up!’
The chief inspector’s pregnant wife keeps making angry phone calls to the station, and O’Yee gets roped into a surreptitious citywide search of an old stuffed toucan. These bits are dragged on for too long in Gelignite, a book that seems to suffer from doing too much with to little, in order to live up to expectations set by the series. There’s just too much screaming into the phone in this one.
Marshall also escalates the violence – the killer at-large is sending exploding letters to various Chinese businessmen, using gelignite, a powerful agent usually used for blasting rock. Instead of gangland score-settling or insurance ploys, the murders are revealed to be a pattern of terrorism against the Chinese residents of Hong Kong.
We are exposed to the motivations of the perpetrator, which are a vile blend of opportunism and racial hatred. Marshall gives him extended space to air his views about the Chinese, which makes for unpleasant reading, even by 1976 paperback standards. The theme of racism is not unfamiliar in the Yellowthread series, and Marshall deserves credit for showing how the police, more than anybody else ever seems to acknowledge, confront the consequences of racism that the populace directs at them, and at themselves. However, it gets all too heavy-handed in Gelignite, which is otherwise a competent, drama with realized characters. 4/10.
* Internet standards being totally different than actual standards, of course.