Book Reviews

Book Review: A Death in China by Carl Hiaasen – Strange Days Indeed

I’ve been trying to get into Carl Hiaasen at the urging of a friend who enjoys him quite a bit. The early books with his off-beat humor don’t quite grab me. However, this mystery co-written with Bill Montalbano works quite well.

Thomas Stratton is an art history professor on a boring tour of China in the 1980s with other art history professionals. He’s itching to get away from the group, and running into an old friend in Peking seems to be just the ticket. David Wang was a mentor of Stratton’s in college and Thomas is eager to catch up with him. Unfortunately, Wang is never heard from again.

Behind the Iron Curtain that was Communist China in the 1980s evolved a murder mystery. At first, David’s death seems to be typical of the tourists that come to China. They begin eating rich, fatty foods such as duck and it’s too much for them. However, Stratton has a feeling there’s more to it. There’s also more to Stratton than meets the eye.

A Death in China is a great book. The two authors weave a tale that is slow to give out clues and pulls the reader along for the ride to the eventual conclusion. I wanted to get there – I wanted to know what happened. At the same time, I kept guessing (and guessing wrongly) as to what was going on. They take the reader through communist China and through the politics that pervaded it at the time.

Characters include those staffed at the U.S. Embassy who feel stifled by the culture and perhaps are a bit neglectful of their duty to the American tourists. Instead, they seem to be concentrating on bringing Chinese defectors over to their side as a way of earning their way out of the post. Stratton also meets an American journalist stationed in Peking who helps him, as does David’s niece.

A Death in China is not like Hiaasen’s other books. If you’re looking for the quirky Florida situations, that’s gone. There’s little humor to be found in the book. Instead, it’s very much a murder mystery and thriller with a little history due to the setting. The story travels across China into Hong Kong, and back to the United States with some great descriptions and good suspense. If you’re specifically looking for the Hiaasen quirky story, you’ll be disappointed. If you just want a good murder mystery, I recommend it.

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