The Murder of Mr Ma Paperback

By John Shen Yen Nee

The Murder of Mr Ma Paperback, a novel by John Shen Yen Nee
Book details

Comparing a detective series to Sherlock Holmes is not always helpful as that is such an iconic character who has gone off to be in a thousand different spin offs, but on occasion it is apropos. If a series is about a super intelligent detective with a penchant for opium who works with a baffled, but intelligent partner, to solve crimes in turn of 20th century London, you may think of Holmes and Watson. But The Murder of Mr. Ma by John Shen Yen Nee and SJ Rozan stars Judge Dee and Lao She and is set a little later in history. Can you compare the two? Yes, but at least compare them to the action Sherlock stylings of Guy Ritchie and then not too much. 

Lao She has settled down into his role as a quiet academic on Chinese culture at a London university when is life is thrown into chaos. As a favour to a prominent gentleman, Lao She is asked to meet up with the mysterious Judge Dee Ren Jie, who is currently residing in jail. One daring escape later and Lao She finds himself as the perfect local expert to aid Judge Dee in his latest case. Someone is murdering Chinese men in England’s capital and with the Met not interested in investigating, it is up to Judge Dee and his allies to get to the truth. 

There is no denying the similarities between this novel and Holmes, but that is no bad thing. The location and period are reminiscent of later Sherlock stories, especially many of the non-Conan Doyle books written more recently. Even the characters mirror Watson and Holmes. Lao She is the narrator of the story, writing the adventure down for us the reader. Judge Dee is a highly intelligent investigator, but he has serious addictions. Still, it would be lazy to say that the two sets of duos are the same. 

Clearly the experience of an English gentleman and Doctor are going to differ from that of two immigrants, no matter their own high educational credentials. Nee and Rozan rightly lean into the experiences of the Chinese community in 1920’s London. They are treated differently and must investigate in unusual ways, not having the access that Holmes may take for granted. 

The dynamic between Lao She and Judge Dee is also more complex. This is the first in a new series and at times it appears that they do not like one another. There is a respect for one another, but also there are moments of palatable dislike. Lao She story is happy to reveal Judge Dee’s drug issues and as a narrator he can come across as arrogant and jealous at times. The snappy relationship between detective and sidekick gives the book an extra jolt of energy. 

And there is plenty of energy. At the centre is a classic crime story that surrounds a trust that several people became involved in. This feels perfect for a historic crime drama. What stands out is the action. Holmes was trained in martial arts, but Judge Dee is an expert. There are some wonderful action sequences. Hand to hand combat is not easy to write well, it can be confusing and messy. I was incredibly impressed with the quality of the action in Murder, the sequences read like a quality action movie. You get a clear sense of where the characters are, what they are doing, and a few martial art terms thrown in. 

If you just took the setting and threw in two detectives, Murder would be a solid, if unmemorable, crime story that reminded you of Sherlock Holmes, but it does more than this. This is also a book about Chinese history and culture in the UK. The characters are more acerbic than even Holmes was, and the action is excellent. This is a fun book, but not one for deep mystery lovers. It quotes being comparable to the Guy Ritchie Sherlock films and that is the exact tone. A tone I will be happy to read more of in the future. 

Written on 9th May 2024 by .

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