A Chinese detective, his missing daughter, and the shadowy world of illegal immigrants... Simon Lewis's fast-moving new novel is causing a stir.
INSPECTOR Jian is a hard-bitten, street-wise Chinese detective who doesn't have a great deal of regard for the law in his own land. When he receives a frantic call for help from his daughter, a student in England, he jumps on a plane armed only with a wad of cash and a credit card.
He finds that the girl has dropped out of Leeds University and become a waitress in a Chinese restaurant before disappearing from the neighbourhood. Without a word of English and baffled by both the physical appearance and inexplicable customs of this country, Jian sets off to find whoever harmed his daughter and exact revenge.
Ding Ming is a young Chinese intellectual of low social class who has been smuggled into Britain with his wife to work for "snakehead" gangs, earning 1 a day (minus deductions) in fields or as cocklepickers to repay the alleged 20,000 cost of bringing them from China.
Ding Ming has been separated from his wife but is determined to find her. His path and that of Inspector Jian collide, and the young man's reasonable grasp of English means he is pressed into service as the wily detective's reluctant interpreter and guide.
Illegal migrants are warned that they must never speak to the British authorities, and, by way of insurance, if anyone steps out of line, or tries to escape, their relatives back in China are threatened or beaten up.
It's an uncomfortable picture of part of the vile underbelly of British society, a glimpse of which surfaces now and again to be met by justifiable public outrage and breast-beating – as in the case of the drowning of 23 illegal Chinese immigrant cocklepickers in Morecambe Bay back in 2004.
Simon Lewis's two protagonists criss-cross the country, trying to make sense of their surroundings and find clues as to the whereabouts of their respective quarry. Their enforced togetherness highlights the social and intellectual differences between them. The policeman likes to hark back to The Thoughts of Chairman Mao and the cynicism and ennui of life at home, while the modern-day Chinese man shows little respect for the Old Guard.
Above all, the story is excitingly visual, culminating in a prolonged and minutely-described gun-battle, with various displays of cunning and physical derring-do from the ageing detective along the way.
The story is as much about how two faces of China struggle to reconcile themselves to each other as it is about the high-octane rescue mission and exploration of barbaric gangland activity.
Simon Lewis, who sold 40,000 copies of his first novel Go, (billed as a "noirish thriller for the Slacker generation"), came up with the concept of a story featuring a Chinese detective lost and befuddled in Britain after originally promising his agent a story following a sleuth who was a Tibetan monk. "My agent dropped me, saying this new idea wouldn't sell," says the writer.
Undeterred, he wrote Bad Traffic anyway (with the help of a 3,000 Arts Council grant), and quickly found someone else who was happy to snap it up. His long-held interest in all things Chinese started "by accident" he says. "About 10 years ago I spent an inheritance on travel, and after getting to India found that I didn't have enough cash to go much further or get home.
"Getting to Hong Kong was pretty cheap, so I went there and got a job, enjoying myself enormously although the Cantonese language defeated me. When I got back I started to learn Mandarin, the complicated and subtle language of mainland China, in return for giving English lessons. Through that I met a group of Chinese people around the Old Kent Road who opened up an interest in the country for me."
With a background in art college and no particular life plan, Lewis fell into writing, when the publishers of the Rough Guide travel book series were looking for people to contribute to a guide to China.
In the decade since he started writing for Rough Guide, Simon has spent about four years travelling (often by very slow buses) the length and breadth of China, updating the Guide every two years, and also writing for guides to Beijing, Shanghai and Tibet.
"I was thrown in at the deep end, just as Jian is in the novel. Early on I found myself up by the Siberian border with no idea how to buy a train ticket and constantly stared at by people who weren't always that friendly.
"I couldn't read anything around me, had no idea what was appropriate behaviour, and even little things like handles on doors were sometimes unrecognisable. Going back to these more remote places recently, there are McDonalds springing up everywhere and an awareness of the outside world that wasn't there before."
The early feelings of strangeness stood the writer in good stead in imagining the responses of his detective on arrival in Britain, and those of the sensitive and observant Ding Ming – including one memorably descriptive passage where he details the young man's horrified fascination with the brutish nose, hairy ears and grimy open pores of Kevin the gangmaster.
Lewis creates characters who are an amalgam of "dodgy blokes encountered during my travels." He says his influences include fast-moving thrillers, martial arts films and the writings of Americans like Elmore Leonard. His plan for the book was to marry a serious storyline with a hard, pacey edginess.
"The basis of the plot came out of two things – the story of 56 immigrants being found in barbaric conditions in the back of a container truck at Dover, and that of the cocklepickers in Morecambe. When I began researching into all this, I found out details such as how some slaves were fed on rice and dog food. It does leave you with a sense of outrage, that this could happen here."
His research revealed that the people trafficking business In Britain is said to be worth about 20m a year – more than earnings from drug smuggling. It's thought that about 400,000 Chinese nationals have paid 20,000 each to gangs to smuggle them into Britain on the promise of a "better life".
A sense of outrage at this situation doesn't necessarily translate into a readable and commercially successful novel, though, does it?
"I was aware of that, so the book is fed by both a sense of crusading zeal and the desire to spin a yarn I had to take out some of the barbarity I originally wrote or the balance would have been wrong. I think people get the picture without giving too much graphic detail."
He feels there should be a great deal more awareness and debate about the brutalised existence of many illegal immigrants, and that we often have a dehumanised view of them because people trafficking is inherently covert.
There's been a rumble of excitement about Bad Traffic in the world of publishing, and Borders have placed a pile of the little red book on a table at the front of their stores, along with other titles considered to be either "bankable" or those from up-and-coming authors deemed to be well worth the extra push.
Simon Lewis feels "a bit infected by the fuss", but he's busy getting on with his next few projects. These include a screenplay of Go, which has caught the eye of a Taiwanese film director. He's also researching a political thriller set in Tibet, and contemplating whether to take wily Inspector Jian into another foreign milieu, with a new adventure possibly set somewhere in Africa.
"For all his flaws and his rough-edged view of the world, I became rather fond of him and think he is a very appealing character. I think there's probably quite a bit more in a bloke as tough and resourceful as he is."
Bad Traffic by Simon Lewis is published by Sort Of Books, 7.99. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call0800 0153232 or go to www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. Postage and packing cost 2.45.