Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Shadow Walker by Michael Walters

I picked this one up off a free shelf because it had been culled from the library's collection.  What I got was worth just about what I paid for it.

The Shadow Walker is a police procedural set in Mongolia.  The primary characters are Nergui, a former police officer who now works for a government minister, but has been sent back to work on the case because the Mongolian police mostly aren't very good; and Drew McLeish, a chief inspector from Manchester who has been sent because a Briton has been murdered.  And not just a Briton -- there were three murders before his, and they appear to be connected.  It is possible there is a serial killer on the loose, and Nergui would like the help of an officer who has more experience of murder than he.

The Shadow Walker is not a very good mystery.  Walters writes very smoothly and invisibly, it's all very competent.  But there are a lot of problems, both with the portrayal of the setting and with the mystery itself.  I have railed before here about mysteries set in foreign locations by people who are not from there, and how they often feel the need to act as a travelogue or overexplain the setting to the reader.  Andrea Camilleri does not have his main character tell the reader all about Sicily and what it's like, because to his character it's everyday and normal.  But, say, a British writer setting a story in India or Mongolia, to name two that immediately come to mind, may feel the need to lecture the readers on the place he's set his story.  I find it obnoxious, and Walters is very, very guilty of this offense.  I suppose partly it's because I prefer to absorb background in little bits through the story rather than in big expository lumps, and partly because it stirs up uncomfortable suspicions of appropriation.  Oh, the white man is going to explain an ancient and complicated nation in a couple of chapters for his white readers.  Arrogant much?

Related to that were more assumptions and appropriations that ranged from mildly annoying to wince-inducing.  Not only does our British officer find Mongolia a strange mix of the old and the new, which is understandable, but so does the native Mongolian character, who muses that seeing tents in the city still strikes him as odd.  Nergui also is not an ordinary Mongolian, he is a Westernized Mongolian, who attended grad school in the US and Britain in his younger days, so he speaks perfect English and understands even somewhat oblique comments and cultural references.  And McLeish is surprised more than once that the standard of living in Asia is less primitive than he expected.  Sigh.  At one point someone shoots at them with a crossbow (?!?) and Nergui tells McLeish that there are many skilled archers in Mongolia.  McLeish's response?  You need cowboys.  What.  The.  Fuck?!?  As if Mongolian archers are in any way equivalent to historical Amerinds?  And need cowboys to fight them?  What?  And in that comment he manages to insult both, by relegating them to the role of a B-movie villain who needs to be defeated by the white guys.  I can't even fathom where this comment came from, or why Nergui seems to not think it as bizarre as I did.  

McLeish is not actually much use as an investigator, as it turns out.  He is there to tag along in Nergui's wake and listen to his lectures about Mongolia.  He is otherwise pretty useless, except to get kidnapped and used as a hostage at the end.

The pace of this novel is too slow.  Vast amounts of alcohol are consumed, we are lectured at length about the setting, and occasionally a dead body turns up.  They make very little headway until almost the end, when we meet the mentally unstable supposed serial killer -- except that he didn't do all the killings, actually, and he was acting on someone else's instructions, and oh, by the way, Russian mafia - strange mining numbers - international consortiums - THE END!!!!

Needless to say, as a mystery it also wasn't very satisfactory.

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