THE KING OF MACAU by JAKE NEEDHAM

I clearly am a very late learner.

Having only recently discovered the wonderful detective novels of John Burdett, which are set in Bangkok, I have just this week made the acquaintance of yet another Asian based crime writer, Jake Needham.

I was in Hong Kong a few days ago, and decided I wanted something “regional” to read on the flight, and after a bit of judicious Googling, chanced upon “The King of Macau”.  Having recently re-visited Macau after a 25 year interval, and seen at rather distressing firsthand the change from a sleepy, quiet, slightly faded-around-the-edges old-fashioned Portuguese colony to a brash, crowded, noisy, bigger, re-invented kitschy Chinese gambling venue “The King of Macau” hit the spot.

“Sometimes people like to say that whenever something is lost something else is gained, but trading the fairy-tale old city of Macau for nothing more than a clutch of garish gambling casinos makes a sad joke of that old cliché. So much had been lost in Macau, and so very little gained.”

 

Jack Shepherd, the likeable main protagonist of the novel is a Hong Kong based American lawyer, and a case of suspected money laundering at one of the biggest casinos in Macau sees him travelling between the two former colonies, both now reintegrated into China.

The drawback of reviewing a crime novel is that you absolutely do not want any plot spoilers, so all I will say is that the pursuit of the suspected money laundering trail is an exciting, dramatic one.

Jack Shepherd knows his way around Southeast Asia (as does his author, Jake Needham) and yet even he is surprised to meet Freddy in Macau.  Freddy, aka…no, sorry, I really can’t tell you, as that would seriously spoil your enjoyment of the second story line in this cleverly crafted book.

Suffice it to say, while reading the novel I googled Freddy and found (oh joy of joys) that he really does exist, and I learned lots of fascinating stuff that I never knew (but I won’t spoil it for you, worry not!).

Then, after reluctantly finishing the book, I googled Stanley and Pansy Ho – and yes, they too are real live people, which makes the author’s note at the end of the book fascinating :

It is a tricky business for a novelist to combine real people and places with imaginary ones, so I want to make this absolutely clear: The King of Macau is a work of fiction. Although some of its characters are based on people who actually exist, those characters do and say things here that, as far as I know, none of those people have ever done or said in real life. Most of the places described here are real, too, but those places have never actually witnessed any of the events that occur in this narrative.

I make this stuff up, folks. I hope it all feels real to you, I really do; but it isn’t. That’s the simple truth of it.”

 

 

This is a beautifully written book.  The plot rattles along at such a pace that you don’t want to put the book down – I had to force myself to, in order to sleep on my hideously timed overnight flight to Hong Kong – and Mr. Needham’s great love for Asia shows through, in moments of pure lyrical beauty :

“Henri’s sits where it has sat for generations, on a quiet residential street at the edge of the harbor not far from Government House. Avenida da Republica is overhung along most of its length with ancient oak trees that over the decades have knitted their branches together into a living canopy. It is a neighborhood that feels both tranquil and timeless. When I got out of the car, I stood for a moment and looked across the harbor to where ranks of powerful white floodlights etched the Macau Tower and the Ponte de Sai Van bridge into the velvety black of the night sky. The Macau Tower looked like a giant gigantic rocket ship all lighted up on its pad for a midnight departure to deep space, and the Ponte de Sai Van bridge looked like the last remaining connection tethering it to earth. A breeze rippled the leaves of the oak trees and in the near silence I could hear them murmuring. It almost seemed as if they were whispering something to me. It was all so beautiful it took my breath away.”

 

 

 

We went to Macau on our honeymoon, and went back to celebrate our wedding anniversary there with our children.  Completely taken aback at the garishness of Macau – and the way the little place had grown, literally, with all the landfill – it was only when I stood on the balcony of our hotel, on our silver wedding anniversary, and looked out over the city by night, that I felt a connection to the old sleepy Macau of a quarter of a century ago.  And, just like Jack Shepherd, it was so beautiful that night that it took my breath away…

I love Mr.  Needham’s sense of gentle irony :

“Clube Militar de Macau is an anachronism, even judging it by Macau’s rather generous standards of anachronism. It is a low slung, pink and white colonial building on Avenida da Praia Grande that looks like a strawberry wedding cake someone left in the rain. It was a Portuguese officers’ mess in the 1870s, but now it is a private club that counts among its membership the political elite of Macau, if a former Portuguese colony now completely controlled by China can be said to possess a political elite.”

 

A great read.

Thrilled to have found a new writer and a new Asian hero.

Thoroughly recommended.

Published in 2014.
If you now feel like reading this excellent book, nothing could be easier.  Just click on the link below :

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