Sunday, January 20, 2019

'At moments I am even envious of the defunct Mr. Li.'

Tsang Ah-bou was James W. Bennett's attempt at a Charlie Chan-style detective, the twist being that Tsang did his detective work in China itself, where he would have plenty of opportunities to interact with westerners like Bennett himself, who did some diplomatic work and taught creative writing in the middle kingdom earlier in his life. Tsang is more than a tough guy than Chan; "His loosely fitting gray serge gown concealed muscles trained in jiu-jitsu and of an iron-like hardness," writes Bennett, who apparently never caught on about kung fu during his time in China. His athletic training comes in handy when his Occidental superiors in the Shanghai police assign him to solve the murder of a Chinese movie actor in his second outing, "Tsang, Accessory" (Oriental Stories, Winter 1932). Whether Bennett researched the Chinese film industry is unclear and probably unlikely. He portrays an upstart company with American personnel muscling in on a market dominated by native talent, making the established talent suspect in the death of Li, the leading man of the new studio. Other possibilities include the upstart studio's American director and cameraman and its Chinese-American leading lady. To investigate in depth, Tsang gets himself hired as the dead actor's replacement, his questionable physical resemblance more than compensated for, in the director's eyes, by his ability to do his own stunts. A fatigued Tsang complains of his added workload in a letter to his superiors, but it gives him the opportunity to slowly reduce the suspect list until he stumbles upon the opium racket for which the new film company is a front. It might seem unlikely that a director with Hollywood experience would get involved in the drug trade, but as Tsang explains, "It is true that he can command thousand of dollar, possibly, as director. But as head of opium ring, he can make many million." From that example, you see that Tsang's English remains imperfect -- it's realistically erratic rather than by-the-numbers pidgin -- but shows a better grip on grammar than Charlie Chan had. The story's twists include the revelation that Li the actor was in on the opium racket, while his leading lady is a detective in her own right -- presumably working for the U.S. government -- who actually killed the guilty thespian in self-defense. The story's title is explained at the end when Tsang, sympathizing with the actress-detective and the American cameraman who apparently loves her, decides to let the murder case go unsolved. His superiors may think the worse of him for this seeming failure, but our hero reflects that "that is penalty I must pay for joining ranks of law-breakers. It all comes, I think, of the bad custom in United States of having lady detectives!" Tsang made two more appearances in 1933 issues of Rapid-Fire Detective Stories, but after that Bennett's career in pulp fiction was just about done, and his creation would be just about forgotten.

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