Whilst I was considering what to write in this review, I happened to watch a documentary on television on Ian Rankin. One of the interviewees (and I can’t now remember who it was) suggested that the sense of Edinburgh that Rankin creates in his Rebus novels makes his books as much travel writing as crime fiction. This may be overstating the case a little, but I think there is something in this. If you want to find out about Edinburgh, reading Rebus will give you as much as the Rough Guide. I certainly agree with the sentiment and had been thinking related thoughts about Simon Lewis’s novel Bad Traffic, unusually published with the help of a grant from the Arts Council of England. Lewis is first and foremost a travel writer, having worked extensively on The Rough Guide to China and has been called ‘one of the pioneers of new travel fiction’. This is his second novel.
I’m not quite sure what ‘new travel fiction’ is exactly (although I could make a pretty reasonable guess), but the travel guide writer in Lewis is very evident in Bad Traffic. The novel is a crime thriller, centered upon a Chinese detective, Inspector Jian, who is non-English speaking, but comes to England in search of his daughter, a postgraduate student who has got herself mixed up with an unsavoury gang of people traffickers. The plot is fast-paced and securely grounded in a serious isue of contemporary social relevance, offering a welcome slice of realism, in spite of the series of increasingly unlikely death-defying stunts and episodes endured by Jian.
It was once remarked to me that travelling abroad is as much about gaining a perspective on your own country and its culture, as it is about learning about the culture of those places you are visiting. By placing Jian in the unfamiliar environment of England, Lewis draws our attention to the cultural differences and so is able to take us on something of a whirlwind tour of Chinese culture, whilst simultaneously offering us a critical perspective on our own. At times Lewis is guilty over overegging this particular pudding, especially at the beginning of the novel, and this can become a little tiresome. Also the naivety of Jian as he tries to negotiate this unfamiliar environment is at times slightly incredulous. Nevertheless, this tension between the cultures is what drives the narrative and provides the context for the social criticism that Lewis has to offer.
This was a book that grew on me more and more as I read it, in spite of being irritated by a surprisingly large number of typographical errors that should have been picked up by a half-decent copy editor – words misspelled and whole sentences without spaces between the words being the most common errors.