Well, it's just about halfway through February and I've already got a very good contender for one of my favourite reads of 2016. The book is called Death in Shanghai and it is by an author called M J Lee. Really guys this is a fantastic read with everything you want from a great novel. To tell me all about it I've got the man in question to answer a few questions, not only about this book but also the second book in the series, City of Shadows.
So Martin, let’s kick off! Death in Shanghai is a thriller set, as the title suggests in the city of Shanghai around the time of the late 1920's. Can you tell us all a little more about the idea behind this novel and why you picked this particular time and setting for this book and generally what is it all about?
What was the very first thing that gave you the idea for this book? Was there a specific time or place when something just popped in your head; like a sort of a light-bulb moment?
I was living and working in Shanghai at the time. I remember very clearly when the idea for writing a novel came to me. I was out walking one evening. It was around dusk in October, one of the best times of the year in Shanghai. Perfect walking weather. I reached the crossroads at Jiangxi Middle Road and Fuzhou Road, just opposite the Metropole Hotel. It’s just behind the Bund and has four Art Deco buildings that meet to create a plaza. For a moment, there was no traffic and no people, a strange occurrence in Shanghai. I was suddenly transported back to the 1930s, imagining old Dodges and Chevrolets rolling up to the hotel, discharging carloads of flappers and elegant men wearing tuxedos. A lovely moment. It was then that I decided to start writing. So I guess it was the setting that inspired me. The idea of a crime novel came after I had done some research, realising that the period was the perfect location for such a story.
One of the great things about this novel, in my mind are the characters. It seems to me that you have spent a great deal of time getting them perfect for this book; not only by the descriptions but how they speak to each other. My favourite character was the protagonist Danilov. I felt you wove him into the story brilliantly, and as all good novels he develops as the story moves on. Now the question I've got is, who is your favourite character and why?
I think it has to be Danilov too. He has a strong sense of morality that comes from his background - being an ethnic Russian in Minsk, a Belarussian city with a large Jewish population. He’s alone, separated from his family during the Revolution, and that loneliness translates into a passion and obsession to do his job well, despite the endemic corruption and incompetence of his colleagues.
Did you have any particular reason to have the protagonist a Russian?
Making him Russian came from a line in a memoir of the period written by a former policeman accused of murder called E W Peters. He mentioned that when they had a problem, both the French and Shanghai police turned to White Russian members of their forces to solve it for them.
When I made a start on this book it didn't take me long at all to realise there has been an immense amount of research into this book. As we have mentioned before the story is set in the 1920’s, a particular interesting era in the history of Shanghai, especially the police force. So the next question I would like to ask is, how hard was it to carry out research into this particular time.
Thank you for the compliment, I love doing research. Death in Shanghai is a novel but it was important to me to get the details correct. Luckily, there are some wonderful sources. I started with ‘England Made Me’, the magisterial book on the Shanghai Police by Roger Bickers. That led me to autobiographies written by serving policeman, E W Peters and Ted Quigley, and a biography of W E Fairbairn. Once I understood the background, the Shanghai Police Museum, the Shanghai Municipal Council archives, the police archives, even the police handbook for 1938 written by Bill Widdowson, were indispensable.
For a flavour of the period and Shanghai style, Stella Dong, Lynn Pan, Andrew David Field. Christian Henriot, Frederik Wakeman Jr and Bernard Wasserstein helped enormously.
To bring the past to life, I used the Reverend C E Darwent’s guide for 1911, the Gow Guide for 1924, and Paul French’s book, The old Shanghai A-Z, which is simply the best street guide to colonial Shanghai. His other books on Carl Crow also give a wonderful feel for the period. Tales of Old Shanghai by Earnshaw books also gave a gossipy (in the nicest way) introduction to the people and stories of the period.
On the web, Robert Vickers has created a wonderful visual resource in Historic Photographs of China as has Virtual Shanghai. Finally, Youtube has a great Russian silent documentary shot in 1928. I used one of the images in this to help Danilov solve the crime!
But most of all, I just loved walking around the streets of the city. A lot of the old Art Deco city is still around (but not for much longer if the property developers have their way). At first, I used the excellent walking guides published by Old China Hand Press, but after a while I just used to wander wherever I felt like going. The Chinese people I met were very tolerant of this strange foreigner intruding in their space. Shanghai is such a great city to wander around.
How long did the book take to write and was it more difficult than anticipated?
The book took me about a year to write and it wasn’t that difficult, the characters coming almost fully formed onto the page. The plot changed and developed as I wrote and luckily I had a great editor at Carina, Clio Cornish. to help me in the process.
Now, the follow up to Death in Shanghai is called. City of Shadows. Can you tell us a bit about what we can expect form Danilov’s next case?
City of Shadows is the second in the Danilov series. A family is found murdered in the heart of one of the ‘new’ Art Deco estates in the city. But what could have compelled them to open their door to the killer?
A man confesses two the murders but Danilov is not convinced of his guilt. When the accused is murdered on the steps of the police station, he investigates to clear the man’s name, uncovering a series of crimes that implicate the triads, opium and police corruption, as well as greed and jealousy.
Once again, Danilov dives deep into the dark heart of Shanghai, discovering all it not what it seems in the City of Shadows.
You have also got another historical book which I intend to read very soon as it has captured my imagination somewhat. It goes all the way back to Samuel Pepys. Can you also tell me a little about this little gem?
I was given an edited copy of the Pepys’ diaries when I was fifteen by an auntie and that has created an interest, probably an obsession, with the man and his life ever since. I’ve been wanting to write a book with him as the main character for a long time but couldn’t find the right hook. Eventually, it came to be that I should make him a detective and so Samuel Pepys: Investigator was born.
The book opens on the last day of the real diaries, 31st May 1669, when a thief has stolen the diary. Pepys is forced to recover it to prevent it’s secrets being revealed to his wife, the King and Pepys’ enemies.
It’s a more light-hearted romp than Danilov, more in keeping with Pepys’ character - a cross between George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman and the writings of Julian Rathbone.
Out of all the books you have written, what’s your favourite?
It’s like saying which is your favourite child. They all are. Interestingly, as a writer I think we enjoy the books we have written three times. The knowledge of how they were created. What we were going through in our lives at the time they were written. And of course, the words on the page, the process of bringing a story to life by stringing choices together.
What are your future plans as a writer? The reason why I ask this is because I understand it’s not just novels you write.
I’ve spent most of my life writing as a profession but in a very commercial sense, working for an advertising agency. I still do that now as a freelancer but I now have the liberty to pick and choose my clients!! At the moment, I’m in the process of writing a new Genealogical detective series. Genealogy is another passion of mine, how one can discover who one is through the past. That book will published in June. I’m also planning the next Danilov due at the end of the year and the next Pepys which will come out in 2017. Busy times but I love to write.
When you first started writing any of your novels; did you plan them first or did you just get straight into the writing.
I had some characters, a beginning and an ending in mind, with a few waypoints to guide me. A series of images if you like. The writing develops as it progresses with the flesh of the characters being dragged up from the subconscious.
Do you use something like Scrivener to help with your writing or do you have sticky notes plastered all over your desk?
Both I’m afraid. I’m a bit like Ian Rankin or Stephen King (two of my heroes) in that I don’t know who the killer is when I start the book. The plot develops and adds levels of complexity. I use Scrivener for the first draft and then lots of post its as I’m revising. Usually for me, revising means removing complexity and clarifying the story.
What do you enjoy most about your writing. Is it the plotting or perhaps the research or is it simply sitting in front of your computer and typing away.
I think it’s escaping into different world in my head. It could be the jazz loving Art Deco Shanghai of the 1920s or Restoration England, it doesn’t matter. The fun for me is creating this world for people. I’m happy that they can see it as well as me.
Apart from writing what else are you really proud of?
Hard question. I think it’s my daughter, who’s turning into a lovely human being with ideas and dreams of her own. We all leave some sort of legacy. I think our children are the best remembrance of who we are and who we were.
Martin, many thanks for taking time out to answer my questions. I for one can’t wait until March 11 when the City of Shadows comes out and of course I wish you all the best with it. Good luck and take care.
Thanks very much, Peter. Good luck with your own writing!!