MONGKOK STATION by JAKE NEEDHAM

For those of you who might, inexplicably, not already be fans of the middle-aged, perpetually grumpy Samuel Tay, late of the Singapore CID – you’re in for a treat in Mr. Needham’s latest book.

Although Sam is retired – he was pretty much eased out of the force – he cannot say no when he is asked to go and help an American friend, Claire, who has a job to follow up in Hong Kong.

It should come as no surprise to those of us who know Mr. Tay to learn that he doesn’t like Americans, he doesn’t like travel, and he definitely doesn’t like Hong Kong – but he goes all the same, grumbling away. He arrives in Hong Kong in the middle of the street protests against the increasing control over the city by the Chinese government, and Mr. Needham brings these protests vividly to life.

Sam gets inadvertently caught up in a protest on Nathan Road:

“He tried to move toward the safety of the buildings lining Nathan Road, but the swirling bodies had him trapped there on the sidewalk. He was sucked deeper and deeper into the crowd.

When most of the mob had finally pushed past him, he saw why everyone had suddenly began to move. Massed across Nathan Road, about 50 yards in front of him, was a skirmish line of Hong Kong riot police. They stood four or five deep and, like the riot police he had seen from the car coming in from the airport, they looked like invaders from another planet. Seeing them across the road from inside an air-conditioned Mercedes had been frightening enough. Seeing them in the street from fifty yards away was fucking terrifying.

They all wore sinister-looking black helmets with opaque visor is closed over their faces and black head-to-toe body armor. Most carried big rectangular Plexiglass shields and long batons which they swung back and forth in front of them. About half the men carried rifles, although Tay couldn’t tell if they were crowd-control rifles that only fired rubber bullets or real rifles that fired bullets which were certainly not rubber.”

I’m not going to plot-spoil for you – I would never do that – but suffice it to say that the search for a missing person is always a race against time, and when this search is set in riot-torn Hong Kong, the tension and the sense of danger is ratcheted up several notches.

Sam also has a health scare (cue for everyone to tell him to stop smoking) which puts him under extra pressure. He is unwell, he is running out of time to try and find the missing girl, he is scared about his own health, and he is in a city that he doesn’t like, and not back in his beloved Singapore town house.

Trying to get information about a missing person, Sam’s fuddy-duddiness comes into hilarious view, as he has to learn how to negotiate not only technology (like how to receive photos on his mobile) but also the way 20-something young women lead their lives:

“Tay moved a four finger across the screen and, to his amazement, the other photograph appeared just as Claire had said it would…

… Anything that might identify friends of hers or suggest where she might have gone. Photographs? Letters? Maybe she has an address book.

“Sam where have you been?” Claire laughed. “Nobody has written letters or had an address book or kept a stack of photos around in at least 10 years.

Tay said nothing. He wrote letters, and he had an address book. He even had a few photographs somewhere. But from the amusement he heard in Claire’s voice when she informed him nobody did any of these things anymore, he wasn’t about to volunteer that now.

“You’ve got to catch up with the times, Sam.”

She held up her phone and wiggled it at Tay.

“This is how people keep an address book, send letters, and save photographs these days.”

Tay figured he was already more than adequately caught up with the times to suit his personal taste. A bit too much, maybe, to be entirely truthful about it, but he said nothing.

“She must have had her telephone with her in Mongkok, “Claire went on. “I can’t imagine anyone her age ever leaves home without their phone.”

Sometimes Tay left home without his telephone. He considered it a minor but most enjoyable act of rebellion against modern life. Of course, he wasn’t Sarah’s age either.”

The thing I absolutely loved the most about this book, is that another of Mr. Needham’s most brilliant characters, Jack Shepherd, makes an appearance, helping out with Sam & Claire’s investigation. The skill with which two great fictional detectives meet is – well, it’s skilful, it’s clever, it’s entirely believable, and it’s also good fun.

Mr. Needham has never been on better form, weaving together two of his creations, against a sinister, frightening riot backdrop.

Tay knew his own weaknesses well, and his very worst was overthinking everything. He wasn’t a good candidate to become an action hero since he reflectively weighed and balanced every conceivable factor before he made any decision. He did it even at those moments when he knew he should just stop thinking and do something.

Like this one.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, Tay,” Shepherd snapped… “You are such a goddamn Singaporean.”

I laughed out loud at moments, I turned the pages quickly at others, to find out what happened. And I was delighted to meet Tay’s mother again.

And yes – I’m now counting down the months till the next book.

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