All The Tears in China, Sulari Gentill
By the time a series reaches book number nine, there are many elements that a reader can expect, and ALL THE TEARS IN CHINA delivers on them with aplomb. Rowly and his band of colleagues are as close as they always were; Milton is still quoting other people's poetry with Rowly providing the attributions; Clyde is still the sensible one; Edna is obsessed with something (this time it's her newly discovered interest in film); Rowly is still quietly in love with Edna (and he will be beaten up by various lurking types with metronome like regularity); and this little band of artistic types will offend powers that be and get themselves into considerable hot water. Local water being so hot this time, that brother Wilfred, still behaving like part stuffed shirt / part worried brother, sends them off to China, ostensibly so Rowly can act as his representative in international wool sale negotiations, removing him from Sydney and the fall out from the goings on in the previous book.
The story lines in this series are increasingly intertwined, with the fictional action set firmly in the real history of Australia, the rise of Communism, Fascism and the lead up to World War II. Because of these interconnections, ALL THE TEARS IN CHINA will give you a feel for the style (which is delightful), for the plotting (which is always cleverly constructed) and for the characters (who are vivid and real), but you may find you're intrigued by the missing connections and back story which means you're in the lucky position of having eight earlier novels to seek out.
The China that Gentill describes in this outing is fascinating and different from the China of current day - this is before Communist control, when tensions with Japan were ever present, there are a lot of White Russian refugees living there, and there's a distinct feeling of colonialist attitudes in some quarters. The trade negotiations that Rowly is there for (with definite instructions from Wilfred not to agree to anything) are the cause of considerable tension with concerns of trading with the Japanese becoming increasingly prevalent. Nothing compared to the problems they encounter when a young White Russian woman is found dead in Rowly's suite, the day after a night of dancing in the hotel, and an arrangement made to meet in the hotel for tea. Needless to say, Rowland is a convenient prime suspect and the gang of friends are strangers in a strange land, trying to save their friend from prison with the help of their newly acquired Chinese servant, an Indian taxi driver and Wilfred's old friend and local solicitor.
The thing with the Rowland Sinclair series is that the required elements ease the manner in which the real history is incorporated into the story. Whilst the friends are gathering in local assistance, searching for the dead woman's brother, and trying to clear Rowly's name you learn snippets about the White Russian's back story, the way that the ex-pat community operated, and the role of trade, commerce, sanctions and political machinations in the mid 1930's. As you'd expect from that time period, the constant rise in profile and bravado of the German Fascists is a gently delivered lesson of history in real danger of repeating itself.
The Rowland Sinclair series is an interesting one. It's gentle and funny in places. It's characters are vivid, it's sense of place and time light and breezy, yet peppered with reminders of where the world was heading. It's predictable enough to feel like a gathering of old friends, and pointed enough to make you wonder whether that sense of history repeating itself isn't a bit more profound than we've realised.
Shanghai in 1935 is a 20th century Babylon, an expatriate playground where fortunes are made and lost, where East and West collide, and the stakes include life itself.
Into this cultural melting pot, Rowland Sinclair arrives from Sydney to represent his brother at international wool negotiations. The black sheep of the family, Rowland is under strict instructions to commit to nothing - but a brutal murder makes that impossible.
As suspicion falls on him, Rowland enters a desperate bid to find answers in a city ruled by taipans and tycoons, where politics and vice are entwined with commerce, and where the only people he can truly trust are an artist, a poet and a free-spirited sculptress.
All the Tears in China throws a classic murder mystery into a glitzy, glamourous, tawdry and dangerous world, entrancing both new and old readers.