Neon Panic: Crime of the symphony

By Martha Ullman West

I have had an addiction to detective stories (and coffee, I confess) since I was fourteen years old, when I read Agatha Christie late into the night, using a flashlight, in my dormitory room at the Quaker boarding school I loved.

booktransWe sometimes had interesting vespers speakers on Sunday evenings, and in my junior year Rex Stout, whose daughter was a year ahead of me, was invited to come and talk about world federalism. The author of the immensely popular Nero Wolfe series of mysteries took one look at the drowsy teenagers draped over their desks in the big study hall and decided to wake us up by telling us how to write a mystery story. There were diagrams, there were rules, there were myriad complexities to the craft.

I thought of that while I was reading Neon Panic: A Novel of Suspense (400 pages, $14,95, Vantage Point Books), by Charles Philipp Martin, a Seattle writer who lived for many years in Hong Kong, the setting for his first novel. It’s a good, well-paced, carefully plotted read, with interesting if somewhat one-dimensional characters and a fascinating mise en scene he knows well, and he’s to be commended for it.

Because it’s devilishly hard to write mysteries. I know. I tried, with my partner-in-crime-fiction Carol Shults, to write one set in a ballet company. Like most institutions made up of talented, brainy, egocentric people (the academy also comes to mind) ballet and opera companies, symphonies, and museums can be Petri dishes for intrigue, murder and suspense. After five years of work, during which time we had a helluva lot of fun, we scrapped it when we realized someone else had used most of our plot elements.

Which leads me back to Neon Panic, not only set in Hong Kong, but also centered on a fictitious orchestra called the Hong Kong Symphony Orchestra. The protagonist is a bass player who has an uncanny, and sometimes annoying, ability to name the note and the key of such things as the sound of a cork pulled out of a bottle, never mind a trumpet’s call. Bassist Hector Siefert, who is young, gormless and  American, is passionate about the quality of his and others’ performances, and furious that the Chinese conductor, in the view of everyone (except the members of the symphony’s board of directors and the amateur music critic for one of the newspapers), has reached the level of his incompetence.  Some orchestra players are in rebellion against the conductor, and the leader of the insurrection is one of the murder victims.

But not the first one.  In fine “ ‘Damn,’ said the butler” fashion (hook ‘em on the first page, said Mr. Stout) a couple of harbor police fish the body of a young woman out of the water. She turns out to be a call girl and would-be movie star. Enter Inspector Herman Lok, who hates police bureaucracy and updating his training just as much as some of his Western literary counterparts — Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Lewis. The search for the victim’s identity and her killer leads Lok to the symphony, to organized crime in the form of the Triads (who are everywhere), to the movie industry and assorted villains from a number of professions, socially acceptable and not.

To complicate an already byzantine plot, the bassist, Siefert, is exceedingly worried about a missing friend, also a musician, and torn between two hardhearted Chinese women, one of them a journalist named Twinkie Choi who is also about as hardboiled as the legendary Sam Spade, but better-looking.

I found most of these characters unsympathetic, with the exception of Inspector Lok and his wife, and I wouldn’t mind at all if this turns out to be the beginning of a series featuring their eminently sensible outlook on a thoroughly chaotic world. A lot is funny in Neon Panic, including some clueless cops and that amateur music critic, Letitia Wheatley Craven (Martin, as an artist, has every right to give us Dickensian names), who reveals her ignorance by overusing such terms as “color” and “texture,” applying them willy-nilly, the way a Portland restaurant critic of a couple of decades ago applied “fresh” and “crisp” to every salad she ate. And there is some pretty scary suspense, in part because of a lavish sprinkling of the red herrings I remember Mr. Stout insisting had to be present in any well-crafted detective story. Which this is.


Martin will be reading from Neon Panic at Murder by the Book , 3210 Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, at 4 p.m. this Sunday, October 16.