Friday, September 09, 2011

Neon Panic

If I were writing a review of Charles Philipp Martin's Neon Panic for anything but this blog, I would probably not admit to knowing the writer, though I can honestly say that I haven't seen him for thirty years. I knew him mostly in Hong Kong, where this novel is set.

Aside from the mystery novels of James M. Cain (who was a musician), I normally don't like the genre. I enjoy mystery movies, but there is something about the heavy-handed way that many mystery writers describe places, people, and "special" cultural stuff in prose that makes for difficult reading. Mystery novels that involve music hold a special place in my reading experience, and figurative red lights flash on occasionally to signal "false notes."

You can imagine that the idea of a reading a music-laced mystery novel written by an old friend I haven't seen in 30 years would prove a daunting proposition.

Thank goodness Charles Philipp Martin is a wonderfully musical writer with a subtle sense of humor, an exquisite ear for voices, a careful eye for detail, and a welcome sense of economy. I knew him as a bass player who toyed with the idea of writing a mystery novel set in Hong Kong, and it seems that the past 30 years have turned him into an excellent writer (mystery and otherwise) who (I hope) still likes to play the bass.

The Hong Kong Martin describes is the Hong Kong of 2003, five years after the British had to return it to the Chinese. The central character is an American bass player in the fictitious Hong Kong Symphony (not to be confused with the Hong Kong Philharmonic), and the story winds its way through every layer of Hong Kong society, as seen (mainly) from the standpoint of a Gweilo with perfect pitch. There's a cynical viola-playing character named Leo who describes his lot in life in a way that many violists can relate to:
"No one starts out with dreams of playing viola, Hector. That's all you need to know. You begin on violin like everyone else, and after a while someone--your teacher, your parents, the school orchestra leader--decides that you're not going to make it. They shove a viola in your hand and introduce you to a world of reduced expectations. . . Forget about the high passages, the solos. Most of the time you're covered by the fiddles or backed up by the cellos, since composers aren't stupid enough to inflict your naked sound on the audience. Forget about the main melody that brought everyone into the concert hall in the first place--you're allotted some crazy mirror image of it to fill out the harmony. You live your life as a noodle in the orchestral soup, sopping up the flavors around you and being swallowed along with them."
Another character named Chiu describes life as a horn player:
"When you play an instrument for enough years, it changes you. You become whoever your instrument needs you to be. The horn is difficult. When you play a note you never really know what will come out. So a lot of horn players spend the whole concert thinking about not screwing up their next entrance. When the notes come out right, they think they're hot shit. When the don't, they bitch about how hard the instrument is. Where's the music in that?"
Martin's narrator eloquently describes the essence of the expatriate experience in Hong Kong, and the problems with language:
Most Chinese in Hong Kong praise Westerners for the skimpiest accomplishments in the language, like a father complimenting his toddler for tossing a ball an arm's length. Hector loathes the implicit condescension, but he knows it's well-earned by the Hong Kong expatriate community, the largest group of functional illiterates outside Calcutta: thousands of adults who can only say "good morning," "coffee no sugar," and whatever taxi drivers need to take them to the office and back. Full-grown gweilo executives, journalists, administrators, and teachers who communicate with the residents of their adopted city on a level below that of a native three-year-old. What can Chinese think of the many-hued, multi-shaped kindergartners who mill among them every day?
Every observation about Hong Kong and the business end of orchestral life (all the business ends including the conductor, the music critics and journalists, the people who work in the office, the stage hands, and the musicians) is spot on. The book is full of gentle puns--puns on names in particular. The Chinese names are all believable, but the idea of a character named "Big Pang," gives me a chuckle every time. Pang, of course, draws a dotted line to Puccini's Turandot, which plays a supporting role in the novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book (and I read it in two days--when I should have been doing other things). The characters are all complicated and interesting (even the non-musical ones), and the story line, which becomes very complex, is compelling. Really compelling. I will reveal no more, but I encourage musicians in search of something truly enjoyable to read, just for the sake of reading, to find your way to a copy of Neon Panic. It comes out October 1. If you live in Seattle you can celebrate the event by going to a book signing.

Here's more about the book.


Susan Scheid said...

I'm very pleased you've pointed this out, and I've bookmarked it as a reminder to watch for the book. Like you, I ordinarily shy away from mystery novels, and for the same reason, but this one definitely sounds like a keeper!

Anonymous said...

I liked the quote too.... I was considering posting it to my Facebook page!

I didn't realize you made your compositions available on the Icking Archive, I will definitely look. I remember really enjoying the piece you did for/with Mrs Talvi a while back