Dragon Day by Lisa Brackmann is the final book in the Ellie McEnroe trilogy about American vereran of the Iraqi War currently living in Beijing (available August 18, 2015).
This novel had me hooked from the very first page, when our heroine, Ellie McEnroe, describes in her distinctively wry narrative voice not only modern China, its observers and its beliefs, but also how she relates to each:
Dragons and China. It’s the biggest fucking cliche. If you ever go looking for books about China, you know how many of them have “dragon” in the title? Like all of them, practically.
Thing is, dragons are a big deal in China […] Out of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, Dragon is the one you most want your kid to be. Dragon babies are attractive, smart, natural leaders, bring good fortune to the family. Yeah, I know all the other animals are supposed to have positive characteristics, but come on. You’re telling me you’d choose to be a Sheep over a Dragon?
Me, I’m a Rat. Obviously I’m not winning any zodiac beauty contest. Sure, they say we’re clever survivors, and that’s useful, I guess. It’s true I’ve survived some pretty crazy shit.
On the other hand, if I’m so clever, why do I keep walking into it?
An American veteran of the Iraq War, Ellie now lives in Beijing with a gimpy leg and a reliance on Percocet. She supplements her meager disability paycheck by representing cutting edge political artists, a trade that has brought her to the attention of the Chinese authorities. Worse, she’s also gained the notice of Sidney Cao, a ruthless billionaire with a vast art collection, who thinks that she’s the perfect person to evaluate the intentions of his youngest son’s new American business partner, Marsh Brody. Marsh is purportedly in the movie business, but Sidney suspects that his influence on the louche Guwei Cao is more sinister. Sidney maneuvers Ellie into a position where she can’t refuse to investigate Marsh, a process that also brings her into contact with Guwei’s siblings: eldest brother and social climber Tiantian, and rebellious, chameleon-like only sister Meimei.
As Ellie struggles to diplomatically extract herself from this increasingly messy family business, an invitation to one of Tiantian’s extravagant parties soon embroils her in something far worse. Shortly after the party, a young woman is found brutally murdered, with only Ellie’s business card on her body for identification. Knowing full well that the authorities would like nothing more than to pin the blame on the “corrupt foreigner”, Ellie must race to uncover the real killer while staying on the good side of Sidney and his powerful extended family.
Lisa Brackmann does an excellent job of depicting the realities of modern-day China, going beyond the well-known territory of crowded metropolises and political intrigues to also show us slices of lives throughout Beijing’s diverse social strata, from dirt-poor migrant workers to middle-class white-collar employees (into which category Ellie and her also expatriate mother squarely fall) to the obscenely rich. Brackmann also spotlights the role of art, including architecture, in modern China, through the unique lens of Ellie’s experiences. Here’s Ellie being driven through one of the many nearly empty “ghost” cities built to fulfil the visions, practical or otherwise, of land developers and their political patrons:
Vicky barrels her SUV through the streets of Xingfu Cun, speeding down the avenues and swinging wide around the curves, which would normally make me nervous — that’s how we drove in the Sandbox — pedal to the metal, tougher to hit a moving target and all — but there’s hardly a car on the streets, hardly any people here at all. It’s like we’re driving around in some weird postapocalyptic movie, except with no zombies.
I lean back in the seat and try to clear my head. Just try to not think about anything at all. Like that army shrink told me.
Feelings are transient. You let yourself feel them, observe what they are, let them go.
While Dragon Days is the last in Lisa Brackmann’s planned trilogy involving Ellie McEnroe, it seems a real shame to have it be the final word. Ellie is a complex character molded in the fine tradition of noir investigators: tough but damaged, a moral soul caught up in a world of corruption. Her unique circumstances—encompassing physical and emotional trauma in America, Iraq, and now China—bring a fresh take on the genre, immersing the sophisticated reader in a tale at once exotic in its details but familiar in its inherent hard-boiled truths. I’m really hoping Lisa Brackmann allows us to revisit Ellie in a new adventure when the time is right.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She
microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.