Review of Joan Richter's The Gambling Master of Shanghai

gambling-master-140The Gambling Master of Shanghai and other tales of suspense
by Joan Richter (Staff spouse — Kenya 1965–67)
Peace Corps Writers
April 2011
255 pages

Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000–02; Madagascar 2002–03)

JOAN RICHTER LIVED FOR TWO YEARS in East Africa, where her husband was deputy director of the Peace Corps/Kenya program, and later she consulted for Peace Corps/Washington on the role of staff wives overseas. But mostly, Joan Richter is a writer. Joan Richter’s The Gambling Master of Shanghai and other tales of suspense, is a finely wrought collection of seventeen stories, a page-turning illumination of an enviable, forty-year writing career. The book is handsome in design and illustration, and boasts a brooding cover of a birdcage in a darkened alleyway that perfectly captures the disturbingly noire tone of these master works. It’s clear that Peace Corps Writers, which chose to publish Ms. Richter’s collection as a signature title of the imprint, not only recognized these stories as important, but lavished well-deserved care in bringing them out so attractively. The beauty of the physical book only begins to hint at the poised elegance of the tales inside.

Categorizing Richter’s writing is no easy task, other than to say with surety that her literary antecedents include Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Hitchcock, Graham Greene, and Nadine Gordimer. Populating her pages with ex-pats, spies, political dissidents, foreign correspondents, frightened peasants, and gem smugglers, Richter ranges widely around the globe. We visit East Africa, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, the coal mining hills of Appalachia, and American suburbia. The authority with which she handles the great diversity of her characters and settings is all the more remarkable in an artistic vision that betrays nothing but unity. All of these darkly twisted adventures are linked by a moral vision as nuanced as it is intellectually subtle.

Take this example from Bitter Justice, a tale from midway through the collection, which forms part of a suite of stories set in post-Independence East Africa in which Richter explores race relations between whites, Asians, and black Africans as they struggle to come to terms with the departure of the British. Here, Kamau, a newly empowered Kenyan official confronts Patel, an East Indian shopkeeper on the eve of the Asian Expulsion:

“Tell me why the land that made you rich, that kept you in women and food and gave you sons, is not the country to which you choose to give allegiance . . . You have no answer? Then I will give you one. Fear.  But why are you afraid? What have you done that should make you fear an African government? . . . You do not remember me, do you? . . . I was only a child . . . You called me foul names and said I smelled like an animal . . . When I tried to take what was due me, you threw me out onto the street . . . I was beaten over the head by your relatives.” Kamau looked away . . . His heart was pounding and his head was beginning to ache . . . What else would tomorrow bring? What unknown thing? What regret? His glance returned to the man cowering in front of him, and he wondered why he was hesitating to use the power that was now his.

Again and again in Richter, decent individuals find themselves making Faustian bargains in the face of bloodlust and revenge for old wrongs. While Kamau knows the mob outside his window would like nothing better than to see Patel stood up against a wall and shot, he also has actual criminals to deal with, African ones at that. The conclusion Richter leads Kamau to is as sadly unavoidable as it is surprising. The mastery of her storytelling is that she places her characters in situations so seemingly intractable that the suspense continues to mount until the very d’enouements of her delicate endings.

While the best of her ex-pat tales conjure Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint racing one step ahead of disaster as they fall in love in North By Northwest, such as in the fine The Dance of the Apsara, set in a post-Killing Fields Cambodia, in her title story, The Gambling Master of Shanghai, Richter offers us Grant and Saint as they would have been fifty years on, in the guise of two aging Chinese reunited in Las Vegas after being separated by the horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Uncle Ho and Madam Jia, childhood sweethearts, have somehow retained their vim and vigor for each other despite being denied a lifetime together. As it’s the clever Richter weaving this tale, the ending offers us Ho and Jia dropping what seem to be long-hidden balls of bird crap into a glass of water, only to see that objects of great value have been secreted inside each one.

There is no end of things to relish in these pages — when reviewing collections of short stories, one always anticipates finding an ugly duckling or two among the noisy brood. In this regard, The Gambling Master is a vicious pack of wolves without a single dog in the bunch. Riddled with murders, deceit, double agents, moments of dark beauty, odd humor, and twists, the collection also offers something even more important than the simple pleasure of its wicked little tales — it allows us to witness in one book the development of a writer over the span of decades.

And what a fine writer Richter is. Here, she deftly shows a character’s beauty, without ever using the word “beautiful,” all the while setting the scene — an ex-pat watering hole in Phnom Penh — without wasting a breath:

He’d known their appearance would get a rise. Her dress was a sleeveless white linen, hugging the curve of her high breasts and showing off her slim, suntanned legs. The mirror behind the bar signaled their arrival. All heads turned. He made the introductions. Guys, who could be hard and crass, were transformed into charmers.

Here, in The River’s Child, one of her bloodier African tales, she reveals that a man’s newest wife, who he saved from certain death, is a pygmy without stooping to use the word: “She did not have the broad flat palms or the wide foot soles of Luka’s people, and she would always be small, but she was no longer a child. Luka built her a house in the compound where his other wives lived. He called her his small wife.” And in Recipe Secrets, Richter deftly transitions into a flashback as easily as this, “Like warm oil, a memory slid over him, transporting him to a hotel room overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.” The specificity of “overlooking the Gulf of Mexico” earns this seamless narrative shift and puts the reader into the memory with immediacy.  All storytellers long to write like this, but few achieve it.

We learn how to write from our best writers, and Richter seems to nod in agreement at this idea in Assignment in Prague, in which she sends a spy and her quarry on a walk as tense as the famously duplicitous one in The Cask of Amontillado. Tipping her literary cap to Poe, she writes here, “She lay trapped in that place where conscious thought crosses into dream, and wanders down strange paths, creating realities that in the light of day are quickly unmasked.” No better quote serves as final summary for these fine tales, and this lasting, artful achievement.

Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s new novel Mule will be releases from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September.

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