Wednesday, January 28, 2009
The Shadow Walker, Michael Walters
I first heard about Michael Walters's crime novels (featuring Nergui, former cop and now at the Ministry of Security) set in Mongolia from Maxine, at her Petrona blog. I'm behind the curve in discovering the Nergui books, but since the U.S. publishing industry is also a bit late discovering them (the first one, The Shadow Walker, had its first U.S. edition only in August 08) I don't feel so slow. One of Walters's achievements is his portrait of an almost entirely new noir environment: I can't think of another urban noir novel in which nomadic tent settlements coexist with apartment blocks and abandoned factories. Mongolia and its capital city, Ulan Baatar, are (in the novel, at least) at the tipping point between a traditional nomadic culture and an already post-industrial globalism. The former Soviet influence now replaced by gangsters and multi-national corporations, Nergui's Mongolia is beset by corruption, economic uncertainty, uncertain urbanization, and the difficulty of returning from cities to a rural, peripatetic life. The characters range from former insurgents forced out into the countryside to Russian gangsters to English cops and diplomats to hard-working police (best exemplified by Nergui's protegee, Doripalam. The plot is based on a frustrating police investigation into a series of puzzling murders (serial killer? political assissin?), with one of the victims being a U.K. citizen, causing a senior detective from Manchester (Drew McLeish) to join the team. The English detective provides a Western point of view, someone for whom Mongolia needs an introduction (like the reader), an effective device. The plot, though, is less central to the novel than a growing sense of shadowy threat (Walters carefully leaves the murderer and other evildoers offstage for a long time) and an increasingly complex network of interests involved in the crimes: mining, politics, development,industrial espionage. The complexity of the competing interests rivals Le Carre's post-Cold War plots, but within a linear narrative (provided by the police investigation) rather than Le Carre's splintered storytelling style. The complexity is also evident in the Nergui's somewhat mysterious background (is he really police, a spy, a national hero?), but Nergui is a fascinating, fully rounded character rather than puzzling cypher--and The Shadow Walker (and, I expect, this series) rests firmly on his shoulders. It's not merely the unique location (though Walters makes great use of that) that makes The Shadow Walker a good read: Nergui's world is grounded in very real, very contemporary forces affecting all of us, concentrated in a unique form in a place that is both totally exotic and immediately recognizable.