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Following the trail of a brutal murder in the shadowy world of Shanghai
The corpus delecti makes an appearance barely five pages into The Master of Rain, a classy noir whodunit set in the polluted and evil milieu of 1920s Shanghai. From there on, the action never looks back. Within minutes of receiving his first assignment, Richard Field, a fresh and idealistic English recruit to the Shanghai international police force, sees the horribly mutilated body of a beautiful young Russian woman, watches the beheading of a potential witness to the crime and becomes mesmerized by the victim's neighbor, the alluring and enigmatic Natasha Medvedevall while trying to keep up with Caprisi, his blunt and cynical American partner.
Everyone suspects a sinister and powerful Chinese gangster named Lu is behind the brutal murder; the dead woman, Lena Orlov, is one of many young daughters of Russian aristocracy displaced by their homeland revolution who are working for Lu as prostitutes and dancers in his clubs. But it's not that simple. Not only is Lu well-protected by an army of henchmen, he is also protected, to a certain extent, by his carefully constructed legitimacy in the business and government communities. And as Field soon finds out, no one can be trusted. In a dirty city, everyone appears tainted, even his colleagues on the police force, and Field must be careful in whom he confides. In order to save his life and pursue the investigation, he is forced to put his trust in his partner Caprisi, and even that last trust is eventually shaken to its roots.
Against everyone's warnings, Field falls for Natasha Medvedev. He believes, even though she is maddeningly reticent, that she is the key to the murder of Lena Orlov and is, in fact, the next victim in what might be a chain of serial murders. He is drawn deeper and deeper into a personal involvement that clouds his judgment and endangers them both. The investigation and his attempts to get the truth from Natasha rush to an exquisitely crafted climax.
The action plays out over only a few days at a pace that never falters, and the characterizations, especially that of the city of Shanghai itself, are rich, full and colorful. Everyone has a story to tell there, everyone is lugging some kind of baggage, including Richard Field. An interesting side plot of just the right texture and force involving Richard's relationship with his uncle Geoffrey, a Shanghai government official, and Geoffrey's wife, Penelope, adds unexpected depth to Field's character and creates one of the book's several satisfying complexities.
In the end, The Master of Rain is a good old-fashioned murder mystery. Its inherent danger, its passionate and idealistic protagonist, and its twists, turns and danglings make it a great read. The debut novel of Tom Bradby, a foreign correspondent for British television's ITN, The Master of Rain is a dark, fast-paced juggernaut all the way to its cliffhanger ending.
Sam Harrison is a writer and hospice nurse in Ormond Beach, Florida.