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Book Report: Detective gets at China's underbelly

Here's a book I wish I could have read five years ago, just before I took my first and probably last trip to China.

As a newcomer to oriental travel I was incredibly impressed with the mammoth construction projects, the swirl of people and traffic (one day in Beijing a taxi hit our tour bus and our driver just chuckled and kept on driving) and the general orderliness of the cities and its millions.

On the outskirts of cities, I marveled at factories set up by international auto manufacturers and swore I would never see as many Buick Century autos in one planet.

Thus I came home with a new admiration for a well-run if dictatorial society. I should have read "The Fat Years," by Chan Koonchung (Doubleday, $27.95).

He's a Hong Kong journalist, founder of a famous magazine, and author of several fictions. He published "The Fat Years" in Hong Kong. It begins thusly:

"One whole month is missing. I mean one whole month of 2011 has disappeared, it's gone, it can't be found. Normally February follows January, March follows February, April follows March, and so on. But now after January it's March, or after February it's April...Do you understand what I'm saying -- we've skipped a month!"

The narrator journalist Lao Chen interrupts his friend:

"Fang Caodi, just forget it," I said. "Don't go looking for it. It's not worth it. Life's too short; just look after yourself."

Doesn't this sound like fun? The authorities on the Chinese mainland apparently didn't think so and banned its distribution.

Lao Chen continues the story of his activist friends' efforts to find the lost month or an explanation for its disappearance. It's a fine detective story about the underbelly of Chinese life and the Chinese people who live in it.

It's not a pretty picture and China's newfound power and aura of empire reveals some interesting cracks in its very smooth appearance.

The questions remain.

Will China's economic revolution free up its people. Or will it cover up a Leninist-bent authoritarianism bought with unbounded consumerism?

One thing is for certain. George Orwell would have loved this book.

On the regional front, the ever-protean Lerner Publications of Minneapolis is out with a fascinating series of graphic books for young adults.

All based on a childhood favorite of mine, Mr. Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. Watson.

It's a series called "On the Case with Holmes and Watson," published by Lerner's Graphic Universe Division."

There are fourteen books in all, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's short stories.

Number eleven is "Sherlock Holmes and the Adventures of Black Peter," by Murray Shaw and M.J. Cosson, illustrations by Sophie Rohrbach and JT Morrow (Graphic Universe, $6.95), which orders its 9 to 12 year old readers to "get on the case with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to solve an impossible mystery.

See if you can figure out how Holmes pulls the facts together so quickly. Clues at the back of the book will reveal his process of reasoning -- and how he solved the crime." The entire series was written and illustrated by the above artists and each volume costs $6.95.

Bob White. What a name for an amateur detective. Come to think of it, it's perfect for Chaska resident Jan Dunlap's new book, "Falcon Finale" (North Star Press, $14.95).

Dunlap won a Midwest Book Award silver medal for her first novel, "Boreal Owl Murder," whose hero turned out to be birder fanatic Bob White.

In White's second outing, he's in Cottonwood County hoping to sight the elusive Gyrfalcon.

No, don't worry. You don't have to care about rare birds to enjoy Dunlap's weaving of a mystery.

Turns out he has to leave Cottonwood County and head for Flagstaff, Ariz., where his brother-in-law Alan Thunderhawk has also turned out to be elusive.

He's disappeared during his honeymoon with Bob White's sister. On his quest, Bob runs into a twenty-year-old unsolved murder as well as a boy who claims to be his new brother-in-law's son.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at 715-426-9554.