Epic yarn from author of 'Shogun'; Noble House: A Novel of Contemporary Hong Kong, by James Clavell. New York: Delacorte Press. $19.95.
In his latest novel, the author of the best seller "Shogun" has shifted his scene from medieval Japan to the Hong Kong of 18 years ago. But one is still in Asia -- where the clash of cultures and ideologies remains as intense in 1963 as in the 1600s.
James Clavell is a master yarn-spinner and an expert on detail. Indeed, one sometimes feels overwhelmed with the masses of information and wishes a firmer editing pencil had been applied. But the author, nevertheless, is in a class with James Michener and Robert Elegant in his ability to handle a massive cast and hold your attention through the intricacies of a 1,200-page plot.
This book should last a weekend reader most of the summer. But since the action is limited to a little more than a week and the chapters are identified by the time of day, the story can be laid down and resumed without too much puzzlement. Even so, this reviewer was not always certain which character was which -- or if all the pieces fitted together, Nor do the British, American, and Soviet spymasters in "Noble House" seem as sophisticated or believable as those in recent works by John le Carre and Graham Greene.
Briefly, this opus has colorful, suspenseful incidents galore -- more than enough for another television series. There is the interaction between the few, close-knit Britons and the masses of Chinese, rich or poor, in the prosperous little British Crown Colony. Added to that is the bold intrusion of businessminded Americans, and Russians determined to carry both the East-West espionage race and their bitter rivalry with the emerging China into the Hong Kong arena.
The Noble House is Struan's, a fictional Hong Kong family company, the oldest , biggest, and most powerful one. Struan's origins in the 1840s will be familiar to readers of Clavell's "Tai-Pan." The present tai-pan (supreme leader) of Struan's, Ian Dunross, suddenly finds himself in deep financial trouble, with enemies about to take over his company. Moreover, he must fulfill the ancient pledge by the founder of the trading house to grant "whatsoever he asks" to anyone producing the other half of a certain gold coin. How Dunross maneuvers out of these twin challenges forms the central plot.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong itself provides the backdrop for fascinating characters and violent events. A Rolls-Royce hurtles down the steep Peak Road without brakes.A fire raages a crowded restaurant boat in Aberdeen Harbor. A massive mud-slide toppes apartment towers in the fashionable Mid-Levels. Drug traffickers and spies make their runs, with often fatal results. People are stabbed in telephone booths, pushed off ships, tortured by tongs, police, and spymasters. Then the survivors all go to the races in Happy Valley on Saturday -- where the tai-pans continue their competition with horses.
Lovely women dot the pages. The best is Casey (actually Kamalian Ciranoush Tcholok, who wins the most-original-name derby hands down). She is an American determined to hold her own the male taipans, who succeeds in the financial rat race but takes a hard knock in the romance department.
Mr. Clavell puts the city and its denizens through their paces so competently that one hesitates to quibble about his language. Yet I found some of his unusual contractions hard to take. Why not "the KGB have" instead of "the KGB'eve"? Or "that would have" instead of "that'd've"?
A final word about the hero, Tai-Pan Dunross. He comes across as an authentic Hong Kong type who could probably hold his own anywhere in the world. Everyone else is equally ruthless, so you end up hoping he will win out. And, guess what, he does.