“The Color of Jadeite”
Apprentice House, 2020
$17.99, 260 pages
Eric D. Goodman is a versatile writer. While all of his novels are intelligently written, they all take on different narrative styles and perspectives. Tracks is an episodic narrative that focuses Roshomon-like on different characters – passengers on a train from Baltimore to Chicago. Womb, his next novel, is told from the perspective of an unborn child who watches the messy drama between his parents unfold. Setting the Family Free, a story about wild animals escaping from a private menagerie in central Ohio, is told from a multiplicity of points of view, including some of the animals’. He’s also authored a children’s book.
So it comes as no surprise that his latest novel is a thriller with a fast-paced plot, an entirely new genre for Goodman, set primarily in China, and told in the first-person by Clive Allan, a private detective retired from the United States Office of Inspector General. The novel opens Sax Rohmer-style in the murky heart of Boston’s Chinatown, where Clive encounters the sidekicks, Salvador and Mackenzie, who will accompany him on his adventure, and then he’s kidnapped by a group of thugs and whisked away to meet Charlie Wang, “businessman.”
“I know all about you, Clive Allan. You have a reputation for digging things up that are lost.” Charlie poured himself some green tea from a cast-iron pot. “You haven’t tried the chicken.”
How like Robert Mitchum’s Philip Marlow in Farewell, My Lovely: “I was having some Chinese food when a dark shadow fell over my chop suey.” The tone has been set! The die cast. Wang explains that he wants Clive to find a jadeite tablet from the Ming dynasty that belonged to Emperor Xuande. Wang has done his research; he knows Clive will be interested, because he loves a puzzle and is also an aficionado of Chinese art. They are about to finalize the deal that will take Clive to Beijing, when, Keystone cops-style, Salvador and Mackenzie burst into the room, waving guns. Goodman’s humor, verging on slapstick, frequently keeps the story from becoming a clichéd, deadly earnest whodunit. (When he’s first introduced to Wang, Clive tells him, “Friends call me Clive. But you can, too.”) Clive accepts the assignment, provided Salvador and Mackenzie come with him.
Eric D. Goodman is likewise a successful travel writer. Before the pandemic, he and his family took frequent trips to exotic locations such as Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Dubai, the Czech Republic, the American Southwest – and China! He has written extensively about these travels. So when the search for the jadeite tablet takes the reader to China, s/he is treated to a Flâneur’s eyeview of Beijing, Tiananmen Square, the Emperor’s Summer Palace, Shanghai, Suzhou, “the Venice of China,” and other points of interest. In Tiananmen Square, when Clive, Mackenzie and Salvador arrive, we are also introduced to the glamorous Wei Wei, the novel’s femme fatale – whom we briefly glimpsed in Boston.
As in the computer game and popular public television show, Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, which is likewise concerned with geography and gumshoe detectives, the protagonists follow clues and solve riddles to get from one point to the next in their search for the treasure. This quest takes them all over China, always a step ahead or a step behind their mysterious rivals. There are encounters with the bad guys galore – Gunmetal Mouth, a character reminiscent of Oddjob in the James bond thriller, Goldfinger, figures prominently in this respect. We likewise first encountered him in Boston, and then he shows up again in the climactic scene in the Jade Buddha Temple in Shanghai – Jufo Si.
An historian and art historian as well, Goodman spills intriguing tidbits throughout about China, from its silk-making to its pet crickets and more. Sometimes it’s Clive who explains some aspect of history or art, and often it comes in conversation. For instance:
Mackenzie said, “Isn’t China, like, five thousand years old?”
I provided a bit from my own remembered reading. “Before Qin Shi Huang unified China, he was the king of Qin. China was made up of a bunch of warring states. Qin Shi unified China and became the divine Emperor over them all. That was about two thousand years ago.”
Wei Wei looked at me. “He’s the one who had the terracotta army commissioned and buried with him. In Xi’an. To protect him in the afterlife.”
“But his tomb has never been opened,” I said. “Out of fear of booby traps, I think.”
Goodman packs a little history lesson into a casual conversational exchange.
Clive, meanwhile, has fallen hard for Wei Wei. This does not end well, and the jadeite tablet? I won’t spoil it by telling, but this comes as a surprise fitting for any thriller.
Eric D. Goodman is a talented storyteller. Readers will enjoy The Color of Jadeite for any number of reasons, not least of them the fast-paced what-happens-next aspect of a thriller. A literary thriller.