There Be Dragons

By Maura Elizabeth Cunningham

Dragons and China. It’s the biggest fucking cliché. 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.

As soon as I read the opening lines of Lisa Brackmann’s new China-set crime thriller, Dragon Day, I knew I was going to enjoy it every bit as much as I had anticipated. At initial glance, the book indulges in the two ultimate China clichés — that “dragon” title and its red cover —but with those first four sentences, Brackmann delivers a big wink to her readers: Don’t worry. You might think you know what’s coming, but you have no idea.

This will come as no surprise to readers of the first two books in Brackmann’s Ellie McEnroe series, Rock Paper Tiger and Hour of the Rat (which she previously discussed in a China Blog Q&A with Jeff Wasserstrom). Anti-heroine Ellie is a Percocet-dependent injured Iraq War vet who moves to Beijing with her husband, Trey, an employee at a Blackwater-like security firm. After Trey leaves her for his young Chinese mistress (speaking of clichés …), Ellie decides to remain in China because she’s as at home there as she is anywhere — which is to say, not at all.

Her attempts to build a life as an art manager in Beijing are repeatedly interrupted by murder, politics, and conspiracy. But while in other mystery series the protagonists’ tendency to stumble upon dead bodies can strain credulity, this same plot move seems natural in Ellie’s case: operating in a world of dissident artists and super-rich collectors, and with her lingering ties to the American defense apparatus, Ellie is surrounded on all sides by people who work in the shadows. Sometimes, murder is simply the only way they know to get the job done.

Dragon Day sees Ellie attempting to stay in the good graces of her biggest — and scariest — client, art-collecting billionaire Sidney Cao, who requests that she investigate a foreign “consultant” whom Sidney suspects is exerting an unhealthy influence over his spoiled 20-something son. Ellie wants nothing more than to complete this assignment with speed and diplomacy, but her hopes are quickly dashed when a young migrant woman turns up dead with Ellie’s business card in her pocket. Maneuvering between the Chinese authorities and the menacing members of the Cao family, Ellie soon finds herself in way over her head as she searches for the woman’s killer.

Ellie is not always a sympathetic protagonist. She’s wounded and closed-off, unable to accept the help that people offer. She should really be nicer to her mother, who has come to live with Ellie in Beijing. And she often makes the wrong choices, fully knowing that they’re mistakes but unable to stop herself. Still, I find Ellie — cynical, paranoid, and profane as she is — a compelling character with a unique voice.

Brackmann has stated repeatedly that Dragon Day is her last Ellie book; there is a limit to the number of times a character can be endangered before a series jumps the shark (see: Outlander), and she doesn’t want to risk reaching that point. And while I understand that, I know I’m not alone among her readers in lamenting that we only get three volumes in Ellie’s story. Dragon Day is a more than satisfying end to the trilogy, wrapping up many of the long-term plot threads while resisting the urge to give Ellie an uncharacteristically happy ending. Ellie, after all, would never stand for such a cliché.

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