William Marshall’s Yellowthread Street series of detective novels are known for their humor, violence and nearly frenetic pace. Besides the debut Yellowthread Street, I thought The Hatchet Man delivered strongly on all three elements, while Skulduggery benefitted from a more contemplative pace as was just as entertaining. In between, the books Gelignite and Thin Air fell a bit short, mainly because their major themes of terrorism and racism crowded out the humor and interesting side characters.
Sci Fi (1981), the sixth Yellowthread Street title by Marshall, is mostly a return to both the original Yellowthread Street‘s form and quality. A science fiction convention has taken over the Hong Bay district of Hong Kong. Hong Bay has several large hotels, some having ties to pan-Asian organized crime, which are full of entertainers, producers and moviegoers off all types. Naturally, the normally crowded district is teeming with the extra visitors, and the Yellowthread police station is filled with costumed miscreants:
. . . Outside in the corridor, Sun evidently having failed to find his more interesting quarry, had dragged in someone dressed as a Chinese Batman. The someone dressed as a Chinese Batman had his hands around Sun’s throat and was in the process of determining by scientific method how hard he had to press before Sun’s face, going purple, went to the full end of the color spectrum at black. Sun called, “Yan! Lee!”
Feiffer said, “Why? What’s the problem?”
“I’m running out of cells. The problem is that those idiots out there have gone mad arresting people and I haven’t got anywhere to put them! The problem is — the problem is that The Green Slime hasn’t even got an arrest sheet!”
Feiffer said, “Oh.” Sun, by the simple technique of near collapse had got Batman down onto the floor and was in the process of removing his fingers from his neck and seeing far back he could bend them against Batman’s wrists before his eye popped out. . .
As usual, Constables Sun and Yan handle the Uniformed Branch matters of wrestling and handcuffing, Chief Inspector Feiffer leads the investigation that follows the principal story, the detectives Auden and Spencer carry out police-work between arguments, and Inspector O’Yee gets sidetracked with some personal mission. It’s a formula that works, even if all the side-stories do not mesh perfectly with the main plot this time around.
A man in a firesuit, calling himself the Spaceman, is taking advantage of the preponderance of costumes to wander around in the open. He has armed himself with a hydraulic gun that dispenses ignited petroleum, in effect a flamethrower. He first arrives in costume in the presence of a promotional wooden spaceship, affecting the robot from 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still.
. . . He had an imitation ray gun of some sort in his silver gloved hand and with the slight wind blowing in from the sea and making creaking noises in the glued joints and plates of the saucer, the ray gun wavered slightly as if the hand holding it might be of frail flesh and blood rather than, like the other statues of Godzilla, Buck Rodgers, Walrus Man et al littering the Hong Bay streets, nothing but locally made moulded fibreglass.
The first sweeper stopping to scratch, waited while his colleague, an older toothless man, wandered up to scratch alongside him, then, leaning on his broom, asked critically, “Do you think that’s any good?”
The Spaceman’s lack of apprehension while he prepares his equipment and execute his crimes is reminiscent of The Hatchet Man of The Hatchet Man, so we suspect that he will not be easy to track down. His crime spree is timed to coincide with the convention, so his murders do add up to a criminal plot. It is kept a mystery until the end, but we mostly know only that it involves something worth “forty-five million dollars,” and its identity is revealed only by the process of (inflammatory) elimination.
Spencer and Auden start Sci Fi in a sting operation targeting a mugger stalking motorists in a city parking garage. They are ga-ga over the coordinated cameras of a remotely controlled surveillance system, a nod to technology trends and the follies they can create. There’s some entertaining tail-chasing that results from this, but I didn’t catch how it tied in to the pursuit of the Spaceman, even by accident.
A more fruitful contribution comes from Feiffer’s investigation of the officer in charge of the only missing firesuit in the public works, the Chief Fire Safety Officer George Bell. A war hero who has the full admiration of the commander of the Hong Kong Triad Bureau (the law enforcement agency that chases organized crime), Bell’s psychological profile recalls the PTSD cases that rose from the Vietnam War — in particular, the horror birthed by the incendiary weapons so common to combat in Southeast Asia. This manifests in several loud arguments between Feiffer and the Triad Bureau Commander, as they chase the Spaceman.
We also see rule of fear that the Triad exercises over the crooked men who make up its ranks. It’s not shown directly, but via the paranoia of a corrupt hotel manager who (rightly) fears his demise at the hands of the Spaceman, and sees hidden messages in everything he encounters. The rapid decline of Anthony Lam is a more dramatic version of the fate suffered by several lackeys under the thumb of The Outfit described in Donald Westlake’s Parker series.
I was not convinced that everything fit together tightly in Sci Fi, but there is a lot to appreciate, and the pacing was very fast. The suspense and humor were mixed together very skillfully, and the title keeps the series rolling. 7/10.
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