Espresso Shots: Hong Kong Noir, edited by Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason

Small-sized reviews, raves, and recommendations.

In fourteen unlucky tales, Hong Kong Noir, edited by Jason Y. Ng and Susan Blumberg-Kason, gives the reader “a brilliant collection of ghost stories, murder mysteries, domestic dramas, cops-and-robber tales, and historical thrillers that capture Hong Kong in all its dark glory.” Under the Union Jack, Hong Kong became the financial epicenter of Asia. Since the handover, the city-state has become an appendage of Communist China, existing under the “one country, two systems” philosophy. Pre-pandemic, the fit had become less than accommodating. While capitalism has flourished in the one-party state, Hong Kong remains unwilling to trade in democracy for political tyranny.

This installment of the popular series from Akashic Books follows the same formula – multiple sections, each story taking place at a specific location within the profiled city, genre subversion – it provides solid entertainment. Cities can be the most exciting when their sordid aspects become highlighted with literary expertise. “More of the same” in the context is meant as the highest praise. It is a successful model for how to create fiction anthologies. Despite the consistent good quality of writing involved, this doesn’t mean the stories are predictable genre exercises.

As with any anthology, there are some notable stories. “A View to Die For,” by Christina Liang would be a wonderful piece of erotica – a pregnant wife with an absentee husband has a torrid affair with a neighbor’s son – except that is ends badly. Very badly. Miles away from the sordid and sexy, “The Quintessence of Dust” by Marshall Moore is a morality tale about obligations to the family business. Set on Lamma Island, Reuben, the narrator returns home to family after a breakup with boyfriend Adrian: “I couldn’t tell where the jet lag ended and the hangover began. They fused into each other like the stairs in one of those Escher prints where they only way is down.” His mixed heritage makes him feel alienated, “It’s my appearance: on the dark side of white, I’ve been taken for Italian, Portuguese, even Polish. In England I tend to feel Chinese. And now that I’m here, I feel transparent.” This grayness becomes mirrored in the moral universe he finds himself in. Crime fiction can traffic in black-and-white morality. Good. Evil. A bad decision and the entire world becomes a hostile place. A switch is turned and justice claims its prize. In “Quintessence,” things are more slippery, ambiguous, opaque. Explaining the family business, “It’s a protection racket without the extortion. Insurance without the paperwork. Business owners on the island pay Charles and Gideon a certain amount of money each month to make suicides vanish.” When more details become clear, Reuben finds himself in a black abyss, morally speaking. But the transition isn’t from good to evil, white to black, but in a haunting spectrum of shades of gray.

As always, Akashic Books crafts a brilliant anthology. Highly recommended for those wanting to explore Hong Kong’s dark underbelly.

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