Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Adversary, by Michael Walters

There is a style in crime/detective fiction that I would call "ruminative," in which the characters re-think and discuss the crime and the investigation repeatedly without moving the plot forward, partly (I'm sure) to keep the reader engaged without making him/her flip back and forth to keep up with the characters and the story. Michael Walters's latest Ulan Bataar mystery, with Mongolian detective Doripalam and state security official Nergui, is a book in that style, and in this case what keeps the book from getting bogged down and repetitive is the eccentric and interesting characters, especially of the two main characters. Doripalam has been (as of the first book in the series, The Shadow Walker) elevated to be head of the serious crimes squad when Nergui is asked to join the security ministry as a sort of liaison between the security apparatus and the police. Nergui is a supercop, after a fashion, and he keeps getting involved in the serious crimes unit, to the frustration of Doripalam, who is having some difficulty asserting his control of the department in the face of his own relative youth and the constant interference/presence of his former boss. Doripalam's greatest virtue is his honesty, a rare commodity in an environment corrupted (earlier) by the Soviet system and now (in an independent Mongolia) by encroaching capitalist greed. In fact, the Western influence in Mongolia is a plague, for the Nergui and Doripalam, against which they struggle daily. In The Adversary, the plague is embodied in a crime boss that no one has been able to bring to court, but who appears in court (finally) early in the book because a not-too-bright, obese, nearing retirement, but well meaning detective, Tunjin, has falsified evidence. The falsification comes to light (because the villain has contacts in the police) and he goes free, setting in motion a series of events (and ruminations) that lead to deaths and abductions and a final surprise along the line. The plot is not the source of the novel's energy: things roll along for a long time without much progress in the investigation, until Tunjin becomes a fugitive and then (toward the end) the judge in the original trial is kidnapped, leading to a final confrontation with the crime boss (who has been offstage for much of the novel). It's the lively personalities that provide the interest: The judge is the first prominent Mongolian woman character in Walters's series, and she has a complicated past intersecting with Nergui's. Doripalam's difficult home life is explored more than in the first book. And Tunjin proves to be not so dumb, even if more often on the Keystone Kops rather than the SWAT team end of police effiency and competence. Plus the glimpses of Ulan Bataar and the Mongolian steppes are fascinating and vivid, the setting in itself being strong enough for me to recommend the book. See Maxine Clark's review here at Eurocrime for a more thorough description of the story and a more positive opinion of the plot, but like Maxine, I am anticipating further opportunities to spend some time with Doripalam and Nergui.

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