BAD TRAFFIC is a book that epitomises all that is great about the crime-fiction genre. It has a tight plot that unfolds at breakneck pace; it depicts an alien world vividly; there is a range of believable and sympathetic characters; it constantly unsettles the reader; and the events it describes seem as if they could really happen. Although the book has strong elements of the noir genre, with its atmosphere of Greek tragedy in which events and characters fulfil the dictates of fate and there is an absence of sentiment, the book is by no means boiled as hard as noir often can be – hope and humanity are there to be found, like specks of jewels glistening in the depths.
The alien world depicted is England, as seen through the eyes of two Chinese men. One is Inspector Jian, an unpleasant and corrupt official whose daughter Wei Wei is a student of 'tourism and leisure' in Leeds. One day, Jian receives a phone call from the distraught girl, pleading for his help. When he calls her back, her phone has been disconnected. He flies to England and on arrival heads straight for her college, only to find that the girl gave up her studies months ago and nobody knows her whereabouts. The scenes at the start of the novel, in which Jian, used to being in command at home but now in a situation where nobody can understand his shouted Mandarin, are thoroughly unnerving. The tension is maintained as he manages to find the house where Wei Wei rented a room, then enlists the reluctant help of her flatmate Song, who is no friend of the departed girl.
The other protagonist is Ding Ming, an illegal immigrant who we first meet when the container truck containing him, his wife Little Ye and a collection of other desperate souls arrives at an isolated farm. Ding Ming and Little Ye are desperate to stay together, but she is sent to "pick flowers" and he is assigned to a group of cockle pickers and bundled off in a van. Ding Ming is thrilled at the wages, the princely sum of £1 a day, even though it will be 20 years before he has paid off his debt to the people who smuggled him to England from China, during which time his family at home will pay if he fails to toe the line. Ding Ming's naivety and constant optimism is charming, lending true poignancy as well as plenty of laughs to his increasingly desperate predicament with his boss, fat Kevin.
The connection between these two stories is Black Fort, a young gangster keen to make a name, and a fortune, for himself. He's connected with Wei Wei's disappearance as well as with the people-smugglers, and as a result, Jian and Ding Ming eventually meet to form an uneasy relationship of shifting loyalties, betrayal and, occasionally, mutual interest.
The book contains many sharply observed vignettes as Jian's and Ding Ming's sleepless odysseys continue during the long night. My favourite part concerns Joy, a fish and chip shop owner's daughter, whose relationship with the local low-life, and her methods of dealing both with it and her traditional father are so on-the-nail it is almost impossible to think that the author is not himself a Chinese woman working in a fish and chip shop.
The pace of the book never lets up; there are twists and turns, as well as shifting perspectives, at the start of every chapter; and personalities shift from being victims to being manipulators depending on whose point of view is depicted. During all the chaotic events of the long night, Jian comes to realise the futility of his life: the price he has paid for 'success' is emotional distance, loss of his wife and now, it seems, his only child; and although Ding Ming remains eternally optimistic even in the light of Kevin's most awful demands and the likelihood that Little Ye has been condemned to a far more dreadful occupation than "flower picking", it is shocking to realise that he is only nineteen years old and is quite happy about a prospective lifetime of eternal debt and hard labour that people in the West would find impossibly harsh.
Simon Lewis has based BAD TRAFFIC on real-life recent crimes in the UK: the death by suffocation of more than fifty illegal Chinese immigrants in a lorry container; and the drowning of cockle-pickers in Morecombe Bay, when they were caught out by the tides. His excursion into the sleazy and violent world of the gangs responsible for these crimes, as well as his extraordinary ability to see England with the fresh and uncomprehending eyes of a range of Chinese characters, is nothing short of superb. I cannot wait to read more of his work.