Road Show, by William Marshall

William Marshall’s Yellowthread Street mysteries are known for interleaving scenes of rather shocking violence with a fair amount of humorous exchanges among the detectives of the titular detective agency. I have found that the best parts often arise from the internal monologues of the bystanders and informants, the civilian inhabitants of the Hong Bay district of Hong Kong, where every Yellowthread Street novel takes place,

Road Show (1985), the tenth entry of the series, meets the standard but does not excel it. All of the good elements are there, but they do not quite blend together in the manner of the best novels, like Yellowthread Street or Sci Fi. In this one, a number of seemingly arbitrarily placed bombs along the city streets of Hong Bay go off, steering the cities famously congested road traffic into a novel pattern.

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George Carsillo cover for Mysterious Press.

It’s a typically hairy problem that requires more patience than Chief Inspector Harry Feiffer appears capable of. He has rather frequent angry breakdowns when dealing with the bureaucrats in his way, but finds some solace in the companionship of a stray dog that has wandered into the police station. His senior assistant, Christopher O’Yee, initially takes a fancy to the dog’s unassuming nature and allows it to linger by his desk, instead of sending it to the pound.

I’m not sure what the dog subplot adds to Road Show, but the prolonged sequence built around Spencer and Auden’s pursuit of a random shooter in a local Zen monastery seems loosely connected. Missing a Zen master, the monks in the institute seem obsessed with the pigeons on the roof, and are making the incorrect assumptions about the ruckus. This subplot is made confusing by Marshall’s surreal descriptions:

The gardener, hopping back and forth on his sand, destroying in an instant all the fixed patterns of life, expectation and struggle worked intricately into it, yelled helpfully, “That way! That was the only way the woman with the gun went! That way! I saw her!” He heard The Voice of Doom shout, “What?” He heard the two hundred pound soon to destroy the meteor yell, “Don’t drop me!” He heard the rafter holding both The Voice of Doom and the two hundred pound meteor start to break. He heard —

He heard Auden roar, “What woman?”

The sand gardener, picking up the hem of his saffron robes with both hands in order to free his fleet to flee. . . fled.

Keeping the reader clearly informed of the action taking place takes a back seat to keeping the reader informed of the confusion felt by all of the characters in these situations. This is going to be frustrating to at least some readers, especially as it is placed in a book featuring abrupt shifts in points of view, and multiple simultaneous plots. I’m usually pretty tolerant of this device — after all, my favorite SF author heavily indulges in multiple points of view — but in this case the Spencer/Auden story tangentially relates to the main investigation plot.

However, the bombing scheme is pretty clever, here. From the start, we are aware that it is a team of technicians planting the bombs and setting them off. Of course, there are casualties, and perhaps the most richly described incidental characters (the Ear Wax Man and the Newspaper Seller) are victims of one of these explosions.

Feiffer carries the book by doggedly investigating the bombings and enlisting the help of seemingly limited specialists, such as the traffic sergeant Kyle-Foxby and the city street-namer Nonte. The typical landmarks of the city are of little help in making sense of the bombing locations, and Feiffer knows the answer lies elsewhere:

It seemed, from that height, that there were only main landmarks in the city. There weren’t. Between them, between the buildings, crisscrossing them, there was a maze of insignificant streets like Isandula and General Gordon Street. “I simply thought you might be able to tell me something I don’t know.”

The main thread, if not the entire contents of Road Show, wraps up rather nicely with the usual dose of suspense and bang-bang violence. This may be the most chaotic book since the original Yellowthread Street, with even more confusion around some of the different events. Both the strengths and the weaknesses of this increasingly off-the-rails approach to the pulp crime novel are on display here. 6/10.

About pete

former academic scientist and presently a software engineer. Also, a science fiction and crime fiction book-blogger.
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1 Response to Road Show, by William Marshall

  1. Pingback: Out of Nowhere, by William Marshall | gaping blackbird

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