Skeletons washing ashore make for intriguing mysteries: they have a story to tell, but the truth of their origins are a cloudy mixture of time, culture and circumstance. The bodies of fishermen found in Japan indicate desperate searches for food off the shores of North Korea. During World War II, a homeless Welsh man who had died of poisoning was dressed as a pilot and left to deceive the Axis intelligence in Operation Mincemeat. The discovery of a skeleton off the shores of Hong Kong starts Skulduggery, a very good mystery novel by the Australian writer William Marshall.
The Yellowthread Street series of “police procedurals” is centered around an overworked, and at times combustable, police station in the fictional Hong Bay district of 1970’s Hong Kong. The Australian writer William Marshall keeps several characters around throughout the series, mostly on the side of the law. We have seen, so far, that when the scale of the crime is too large (terrorist attacks), the interesting secondary characters can get crowded out:
- In Yellowthread Street, we’re introduced to the detectives Feiffer, O’Yee, Spencer and Auden, as they attempt to catch a violent gangland interloper. This book is notable for its slew of Chinese characters, including uniformed constables and gangsters with ridiculous nicknames, who have small but vital parts in the wild story.
- In The Hatchet Man, a serial shooter is targeting people who happen to sit in front of him inside movie theaters. This case exposes us to more of the contentious but functional mentor/mentee relationship between Feiffer and O’Yee.
- In Gelignite, Marshall focuses on the ugly racism of a deranged bomber. We also see more of O’Yee and his anxieties. So far, it is the least fun to read, as the problems of institutional racism and terrorism have grown worse since 1977.
- In Thin Air, a 1970’s-era airline disaster drama unfolds as a group of terrorists target planes and make cryptic phone calls to Feiffer. This draws Feiffer into conflict with the security professionals at the local airport. Better than Gelignite, but still weighed down by tacked-on racist diatribes and a scale of crime that doesn’t fit the series.
Skulduggery (1979) is the fifth book in the series, and represents a change in scale of the crimes that Feiffer and Company investigate. The focus is on Feiffer’s attempt to unlock the story behind a fully intact but decades-old skeleton that washes ashore on a raft. This skeleton’s arrival in a cold foggy morning is richly described, with curious accompaniments — a set of false teeth, rope around the ankle, a bag of sweet potatoes, a prepared fish and a painted drainpipe.
To make some sense of these clues, Feiffer confers with the odd coroner Dawson Baume, a brilliant introvert:
He said, as a matter of fact, “The sweet potatoes are fresh, as, relatively speaking, was the dead fish –” He said in a slightly bored tone, “Which was gulletted by the way — a fact everyone seems to have been too busy or careless to notice — and the false teeth were locally made. An examination of the composition and type of gold in a cosmetic filling in the right incisor shows it to be of local origin.” . . . He stifled another sigh and glanced for no particular reason at the dirty skylight, “I happen to have trained as a dentist before I went on to medicine.” He said by way of explanation, “A lot of people do it.” He asked, “Anything else?”
Feiffer is soon led to a farm collective overseen by a local Communist Party official, with whom he cleverly negotiates to gain access to the skeleton’s previous resting place. As he pieces together the life of the skeleton – a murder victim twenty years prior – we tend to suspect that things are going a little too smoothly for him. Sure enough, the logical confounds, missteps and other misfortunes arrive in bunches, as is typical for this series.
While Feiffer is the lead character again, the detectives Spencer and Auden are given their own investigations; they get to do things besides argue with each other. Spencer waits inside the backroom of a business that’s a target of an odd “deaf and dumb” gang, and Auden tracks a mugger who targets people inside his own apartment building. We even begin to see the emergence of Constable Yan, who has been a competent but anonymous bit player to this point.
Constable Yan unbuttoned the middle button of his topcoat.
The bandit glanced back to the street and turned and nodded to P.P. Fan to hurry up with whatever he was doing with the money sacks.
P.P. Fan hurried. He cast a quick unhappy look at the storeroom.
Yan glanced back across the street. Yan thought, “I can’t go in there with my revolver in my hand or he’ll start shooting as soon as I get to the door. I wouldn’t get a word out before he –” He thought, “Where the hell’s Inspector Spencer?” He reached in through the false pocket in his topcoat to his Sam Brown belt, “I’ll have to try and get in and brain him with my truncheon.”
I don’t know if the Yellowthread Street series intends to tell the story of a gradual handover of Hong Kong’s civic responsibilities from the British to the Chinese, but there are hints that it may happen. In any case, these side-plots, which in another time could have been their own short stories, are resolved about halfway through Skulduggery. This leaves a silly repeating episode about a malfunctioning radiator as the sole distraction – Marshall should probably have just sat O’Yee for this one.
Skulduggery is a more focused and gradual crime novel than any of its predecessors, and is a welcome change of pace from Gelignite and Thin Air. The Yellowthread series continues to show variety and an entertaining unpredictability. 7/10.