Life through my myopic eyes.

The Chinaman by Stephen Leather: A Rose by any Other Name…


Stephen Leather‘s The Chinaman is another of his earlier titles published initially in 1992. It is about a Vietnamese refugee’s hunt for justice after his wife and daughter are murdered by an IRA subversive group who aren’t playing by the cease-fire rules.

Leather writes about the IRA a lot. His books include characters that are in the Irish Republican Army or are people who have been a part of “the troubles” or have been affected by it.

In The Chinaman, we see the occupants of a department store going about their Christmas shopping. In particular we see the Nguyen family shopping. The girl, sixteen is stunningly beautiful and her mother looks years older than her actual age. We don’t get a chance to learn much about the two women as a motorbike rider has left his bike and a semtex parcel outside the store and in seconds they both become casualties of the resulting explosion.

Nguyen goes to the police to see what is being done about finding the men responsible and they direct him to the Terrorist Branch. He learns from them that it is a political problem; he then goes to the Irish politician who fronts Sinn Fein and reaches a brick wall. Nguyen then decides to take matters into his own very capable hands.

Nguyen is one of the “boat people” who escaped from Vietnam with his family after the war. Initially he fought with the Viet Cong and he switched sides when he realised that life in the NVRA wasn’t to his families benefit. Working with the Americans he fought the North Vietnamese. He is a skilled bomb maker and very able to kill someone with his bare hands. While everyone he comes in contact with see him as the owner of a Chinese food takeaway shop, he is more than his job and he is a sum of his past experiences.

While Nguyen takes on the IRA, the politician who is the spokesman for Sinn Fein, Liam Hennessy is in a race to catch this rogue IRA cell who are violating the cease-fire and killing innocent women and children. Hennessy’s got a traitor in the organisation that is supporting the cell. He must find out who it is and use the traitor to help him stop the rogue cell. Since Nguyen has targeted Hennessy as the person that can tell him who killed his family, Hennessy is also hoping to tell the “Chinaman” that the men responsible have been punished. If he does not tell Nguyen quickly enough, he will kill him.

It is amusing to see everyone in the book refer to the Vietnamese refugee as a Chinaman. Reminiscent of westerns where the characters call anyone with a German or Austrian accent Dutchie, because Nguyen is oriental a somewhat illogical conclusion is made to Hong Kong and he becomes the Chinaman. It is a nice touch and it’s one that mirrors real life. Another mirroring effect is Leather’s use of the IRA in his books.

When I first came to the United Kingdom, the IRA was still bombing civilian targets and killing women and children in support of their cause. Americans had (and a lot still do) a much romanticized idea about the Irish terrorist group and what they were doing. I am sure that good public relations, aka fund-raisers did not help to dispel this romantic version of terrorism.

I was on a bus tour in London October 1982. It was full of US servicemen and women and their families. The tour guide was doing what tour guides the world over do. “If you look to your right you’ll see ______ and if you look straight ahead you’ll see_____.” Right in the middle of his spiel he paused and with an emotional quaver in his voice said, “Earlier this year, the IRA blew up the Queen’s Horses.” Wiping his eyes with one hand he continued, “How on earth could your fellow countrymen support such people? Who did those horses ever harm? Three soldiers died and quite a lot of tourists were injured by the bomb. Why would you support such a thing? Why?”

The bus I was on was silent. I don’t know what everyone else thought, but I was ashamed of the fact that my fellow countrymen had supported this group. The IRA was a fact of life in this country for years, centuries. I’ve worked with men who had the unbelievably terrifying job of patrolling Ireland and searching for the “soldiers” of the Irish Republic Army.

I’ve never seen them as soldiers, terrorists are not soldiers. The picture that Steven Leather paints of the participants of this organisation is one of devout fanaticism and hatred of the British troops and the British government. Of course the picture also includes the religious roots of Ireland and the divide that enabled this “war,” or the troubles as the Irish refer to it, to go on for so long.

When Mr Leather writes his stories, he shows that the IRA still has a firm supporting base from not only American sympathisers, but from Syrian and Palestinian terrorist groups. He describes the far reach that the organisation has and exactly what lengths both sides are prepared to go to.

The Chinaman is a cracking good read and moves at a good pace. It is another example of just how entertaining this author is and will be for some time to come.

I give The Chinaman a 4 and a half stars out of five.

Author Stephen Leather.

Tagged as: , , , , , , , , ,

Categorised in: Action, Book Review, Books, Thriller

5 Responses »

  1. in the interests of historical balance and perhaps as a way of understanding how & why groups such as the IRA come into being, maybe you would add this to your list of recommended articles. regards
    ed moloney

    http://thebrokenelbow.com/2012/12/12/the-cairo-gang-the-force-research-unit-murder-in-ireland-and-rupert-murdoch/

  2. i meant to add that the book plot you described above is, in relation to sinn fein and the IRA at least, utterly lacking in credibility. people in the IRA opposed to the peace process would much rather leave, and have left, to join breakaway groups. i have never heard of any example of people like that staying inside the IRA to sabotage either their leadership or the peace process, not least because they would not survive for very long. if such people wanted to harm their former leaders they would do so from the ranks of a rival group where at least they could enjoy some protection knowing that the IRA would be fearful of retaliation. so this is just not believable at all. this is a very good example of a phenomenon that was a recurring feature of both journalism of the Irish Troubles and the massive amount of fiction that accompanied it, which is that when it comes to terrorism people feel able to write any amount of extravagant rubbish. it was true in Ireland and it is true in the US post-9/11.

    • It is true that plot-wise it seems to be a little less than realistic. But to read and enjoy the verse created by Leather, you do have “buy into” the reality as created by him. Similar to the “suspension of disbelief” required by cinema goers. Thanks for sharing and for so eloquently putting your point across. Cheers mate. :-)

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  1. Dead Men by Stephen Leather: Shepherd Number 5 | MikesFilmTalk

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