From East to West, from North to South

The four novels today come from all points of the globe. From India to the UK, and from North America to South Korea. What unites these four novels, is the impeccable quality of the writing, no matter how different their genres are.

‘Death in the East’ by Abir Mukherge

A double-locked room mystery, the events of this entertaining detective mystery take place over two specific time periods. One is in 1905, as our main protagonist, Detective Sam Wyndham, is a fresh constable in East End London; and then in 1922 Assam, India, where the same Wyndham is a Calcutta detective, assisted by the quick-witted “Surrender-Not” Banerjee. Wyndham is at an Assam ashram hoping to be cured of his opium addiction, when he stumbles upon an old London acquaintance he had presumed dead or at the very least, disappeared off the face of the earth—and then is entwined in a new, potential murder case.

What’s wonderful about Mukhergee’s writing is the superb evocation of time and place. The Raj India depicted is pitch perfect, with Banerjee a personification of why British rule was on its last feet, and why it was inevitable that colonialism would soon come to a close. Typical of this is how the British call Banerjee “Surrender-Not” simply because they find his real name, Surendranath, too difficult to remember or pronounce. The tension between the British “rulers” and their Indian subjects are alluded to time and time again, with telling effect. And how the Indians are too polite or respectful to react in a manner they’re entitled to, given the deep racism and abuse.

‘Firewatching’ by Russ Thomas

This is a crime mystery novel centered on arson that would have worked on the strength of how the narrative involves deep family secrets stretching back to World War II, and how the very rich can successfully hide the evil wrongdoings they can be up to in the course of their lives. It’s also a police procedural as our main character, DS Adam Tyler, is handling the cold cases section of Sheffield’s local police force. At the heart of the story is a billionaire, Gerald Cartwright, who suddenly disappeared some six years ago, and is now found to have been sealed alive within the walls of one of the structures hit by the serial arsonist. 

To add spice to the novel is the fact that Tyler, whose father was a cop himself but committed suicide, is himself gay. As such, Adam is often brought out during public and press events as a police poster boy for LGBTQ+ issues. Complications arise when it turns out that Adam went to bed with Oscar Cartwright, son of Gerald, and now one of the main suspects behind the fires. Fast-paced, yet rich with detail, there’s much to enjoy with this crime fiction read, and it’s one I can recommend for those who are fans of the genre.

‘A Bright Ray of Darkness’ by Ethan Hawke

To be frank, I was underwhelmed by Ethan Hawke’s first novel. But since then, he’s written two more and deservedly shared Oscar Best Screenplay nominations for two of the ”Linklater Before” trilogy. So this fourth novel was a pleasant surprise. Drawing from his own life, Hawke has come up with a penetrating look at celebrity, the acting profession, and the redemptive nature of theater. The novel chronicles the rite of passage of our narrator, a popular film star, as he absorbs the fallout of his infidelity to a pop star wife even more popular than him, and how he addresses the issues of a failed marriage, the divorce to come, and trying to still be a father to his two children.

As he takes on the role of Hotspur in a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s “Henry IV,” we become a fly on the wall in the creative process of putting a stage play to life and inside his mind as he’s forming his attack on the role. The kind of personalities who are in the acting profession are put on vivid display—from the big name actor playing Falstaff to the dignified veteran of stage portraying King Henry, and so on down the line of thespians. There’s also a brilliant characterization of the play’s director. And you’ll love the vignette of how our narrator hid his stash of coke in his guitar case; and when his Mother comes to baby-sit and tidy up, she ends up claiming the stash. There’s much that rings true here, and it keeps the narrative humming.

‘My Year Abroad’ by Chang-Rae Lee

From the author of such celebrated novels as “Native Speaker” and “The Unsurrendered,” this latest novel is, for nuance and detail, the kind that only Chang-Rae Lee could write with such confidence. It’s an incisive social commentary that’s predicated on analyzing the East-West dynamic in today’s world. That Chang teaches Writing at Stanford University only heightens the perspective from which he creates this story. At the center of the novel are Tillman, an average white college student, looking for some adventure and meaning to his life; and Pang Lou, a Chinese-American entrepreneur who has his fingers on several pies, and decides to take on Tillman as a protégée and bring him on a business trip to mainland China. 

When the novel opens, we meet Tillman, living with Val, a single mother of Asian descent and her problem son (it’s hinted that the mother is in some Witness Protection program). The double helix narrative then takes us to Tillman meeting the aforementioned Pang a year earlier, and his adventures in Shenzen and Macau, as he accompanies Pang and his cohorts in a “fishing expedition” for capital to fund some health drink product. The contrast is made between the life Tillman was living in US suburbia, described by his mother who abandoned them, as bourgeois purgatory; and why Pang is such an attractive “father figure.” As Chang is from South Korea, there’s a lot of concise commentary about America and its love-hate relationship with Asia.