Book info

A Death In China (1998)

A Death in China (1998)
Author
Rating
3.34 of 5 Votes: 5
ISBN
0375700676 (ISBN13: 9780375700675)
languge
English
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publisher
vintage crime
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A Death In China (1998)
A Death In China (1998)

About book: Carl Hiaasen has carved out a good career for himself as a writer of off-beat comedy crime thrillers set in Florida, peopled by eco-conscious good guys, sleazy real estate moguls and cretinous bad guys. From novel to novel another piece of the Sunshine State's landscape comes under threat from exploitation, wacky things happen, but the good prevail and the bad end up suffering some form of poetic justice. I have read several of his books, and liked pretty much of all of them.He used to be a journalist though, and as I discovered by reading A Death in China, he also used to collaborate on writing more conventional, laugh-free thrillers with a chap called Bill Mantalbano, an American consul.A Vietnam veteran turned art teacher and historian called Tom Stratton unexpectedly meets his old professor whilst holidaying in Peking. The professor, David Wang, fails to show up for a meal and Stratton learns that he has died suddenly, supposedly of a heart attack. Wang was born in China, and was visiting to meet his estranged brother, a deputy minister there in the communist regime, responsible for historical excavations, most notably the tomb of the 3rd century emperor Qin and his extraordinary terracotta army.Stratton agrees to escort the body back to the states, then changes his mind when he begins to suspect foul play, leading to a chase through Peking, Canton, and back to America. As Stratton begins to put the pieces together on the reasons for his friends murder he also finds himself facing the demons of his own inglorious past.If that all sounds like the ingredients for a straight forward thriller then that's spot on because A Death in China is precisely that. I don't know how they divvied up the writing duties, the prose is consistent throughout, but they were no doubt aided in their by-the-numbers approach. The hero risks life and limb for justice, takes a ridiculous beating throughout, has the female characters fall for him seemingly on sight and it all ends with a predictable confrontation. The narrative is full of cliches and tired phrases, i.e. "One race had finished, and he had lost. Another was beginning. This time the track was his". Where the novel would have been interesting when published is for its (then) rare look at communist China in the 1980s. Admittedly it exposes only the worst excesses of Party justice, where anyone can be condemned for anything, coerced to accept "self-criticism" and be sent to a labour farm to shovel shit for five years. One character observes that the "thing about this place that drives you crazy is that there are no facts; a billion people and not one goddamned fact."Yep, American's would have felt very superior reading this story back in the dying years of the Cold War, and although it just falls short of being openly jingoistic in tone, that is certainly part of the intention here. Curiously, the journalistic elements to the narrative, so often a clunky nuisance in thrillers written by journalists and never obtrusive in Hiassen's own books, is actually one of the strong points here. Interesting to see how Hiassen cut his teeth, but like the highly orthodox protagonist in this book Hiassen clearly works better alone.

Hiaasen’s work has never been so far from Florida, though it does at least make a cameo appearance. In this story, professor Thomas Stratton is on vacation in China, annoying the busybody in his tour group by eschewing nearly all its tours. When he finds out fellow professor and mentor David Wang is also in Peking, he makes plans to see him. Stratton is shocked to learn his friend is dead, a victim of “death by duck,” a pithy expression for American tourists who die on vacation in China after overexerting themselves and eating too much rich Peking duck. When Wang Bin, David Wang’s influential and nearly identical Chinese brother, asks Stratton to accompany David’s body back to the United States, Stratton initially agrees. His casual investigation into David’s death turns up a few irregularities, however, and Stratton decides to stay in China instead, setting him unwittingly on a path of danger when he gets in the way of Wang Bin’s ambitious plans. That he also falls in love with Wang Bing’s daughter Kangmei is his salvation in more ways than one as he is forced to face his demons from a previous, undocumented visit to China as a soldier during wartime.Just as Stratton pieces the entire puzzle of what happened to David Wang together, instead of ending, the story takes a turn and becomes even more intriguing, holding us on the edge until the end. Though Stratton gets conked from behind and overpowered by his enemies at least once too often, this is nonetheless a gripping page-turner. Hiaasen proves again that had he not found his niche in offbeat humor, he could still have had a solid future as a thriller writer. Montalbano’s skills and knowledge as a foreign correspondent also come shining through, giving a vivid picture of China’s people and politics. Their writing blends seamlessly for a dark tale of mystery and secrets that unfolds on two continents. Hiaasen fans looking for humor won’t find it here, but those who enjoy his plotting skills will relish this excellent book.
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Reviews
Rachel
Starting off the summer with a sizzling one for the solstice by Hiassen & some other dude. I think I like Hiassen better on his own (I'm not a big fan of group projects) but this book was fast-paced enough to keep me reading. The hero, Tom Stratton, nearly died about 14 times. Not real believable, and at times downright contrived. I didn't like the flow. But it's good for light summer reading I suppose. This book would make a great Hollywood action movie that I'd probably avoid seeing, like I usually do.
Marj
This is the first book I've read by these authors, but it won't be the last. It is riveting, and hard to put down once started. It was first published in 1984, and describes China during that time frame.The protagonist is Thomas Sutton, who has gone to China with a tour group. He is a professor of Art at a small college in the U.S. But in his earlier years he had been an American who had gone into China on a covertmission, and barely escaped with his life.While sneaking off on his own to explore Peking, he meets an old friend and mentor, David Wang. While David had been born in China, he had attended school in the U.S. and while he was in the U.S. China underwent several major upheavals and he never returned until that week. His brother, one year younger than he, and a high ranking official in the Communist Party, had invited him for a visit.When David returns to Peking from his visit, he is taken ill and dies. Thomas is asked by the brother to accompany David's body back to America, but Thomas becomes suspicious and tries to get out of it. before long, he is involved in a situation that will take a lot of luck and skill to get out of.I enjoyed the suspense and the twists and turns of the plot. I also thought the characters were well written and believable. There is a little romance, some flashbacks to the Viet-Nam era, some covert CIA operations, and some sibling rivalry. Added to that, the intrigue and political maneuvering within China was extremely interesting.
Kara Prem
Thomas Stratton, an art history professor is visiting China with a tour group when he runs into an old friend and mentor, David Wang who is visiting his brother, a high ranking communist official. David dies under mysterious circumstances and Thomas sets out to find out what's really going on. Fortunately, or unfortunately at times, Stratton isn't just a professor, but had infiltrated China even during the Vietnam War (this book was written in the early 80's and took place at about the same time). It's a dangerous investigation that starts in China and eventually ends in Ohio. Not like the later HIaasen books at all, but still worth the read.
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