Thursday, June 01, 2006

When they work--when the balance between art and research is close to perfection--crime novels that illuminate a historical period are things of beauty. Caroline Petit's first novel falls into that illustrious company: She catches the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of Hong Kong, China and Manchuria in 1937 as they filter through the senses of a fascinating young woman.
Leah Kolbe is just 19 and tenderly beautiful when her father, Theo, a corpulent and crooked antiquities dealer, dies--his money stolen by an even-more-crooked British lawyer. Kolbe, who spurns the non-Asian population of Hong Kong and speaks the Cantonese they see as downscale partly to annoy them, is suddenly left to fend for herself.
Kolbe finds time for brief romantic attachments--with a handsome but tedious young Brit and a darkly mysterious Portuguese stranger in Macao. But threatened and offered a huge bribe by a dangerous man who works for the Chinese resistance against the Japanese, Kolbe agrees to collect information and old jewelry by traveling to mainland China and then to Manchuria, where Pu Yi (the boy king in the film "The Last Emperor") is the puppet ruler for the Japanese invaders who are preparing to take over the country. She heads back to Hong Kong and arrives in the port city of Nanking the night before the Japanese attack that city and kill tens of thousands of Chinese.
Under the amazingly sure hand of Petit, an Australian writer of rare abilities, every aspect of this terrific story comes to life-- from the bent but loving soul of Kolbe's father to the inescapable feeling that this is the way it must have been.