I’ve been sitting here trying to work out how to describe this. I could say it’s a police story set in a fictional district of Hong Kong in the 1970s, and that it concerns the adventures of the police men and women – native Chinese and Hong Kong-born Europeans – working there.
I could say there’s a missing tourist; a US sailor on shore leave robbing cinemas so he can buy his pals drinks; a gangster with a kukri chopping up shop owners reluctant to hand over protection money. I could say the people trying to deal with all this on one sweltering night shift include a harassed chief inspector; two macho detectives trying to best each other; and Constable Minnie Oh: cool, calm and fazed by absolutely nothing.
And I still haven’t done it justice because I’ve never read a crime story that manages to mix humour and violence so effectively. What’s more, the humour’s completely deadpan; there’s not a second of slapstick. The whole book is deadpan, come to think of it. Here’s a shop owner being threatened by the kukri-wielding gangster. One hundred dollars or the shop-owner will lose his fingers.
At twenty-five dollars a finger Mr Yin did not think the price exorbitant, and if he calculated it at eight dollars fifty a joint, it was downright reasonable. Mr Yin paid.
William Marshall wrote 15 other Yellowthread Street mysteries that never reached the heights this one did. Some of them read as though he banged them out over a weekend at gunpoint. (And there was a TV series that threw out the humour and kept only the violence. Think The Professionals in Hong Kong. It did not work.)
But this book is a gem.