Christopher Banks is a renowned London detective who returns to China in the 1930s to uncover the whereabouts of his parents who disappeared when he was a child living in the International Settlement of Shanghai. Christopher Banks is a mild-mannered detective in London in the period between WWI and WWII (1919-1939). Banks had grown up in the International Settlement of Shanghai as a boy. His father was in the opium trade and worked for the East India Tea Company, and his mother was apparently a political activist (all of these details are told in flashback). Christopher's best friend in the International Settlement was a Japanese boy named Akira who also lived in the Settlement. As a child, people called Christopher Puffin.
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Within weeks of each other, both Christopher's parents go missing. Akira and Christopher re-enact games to pretend they can find Christopher's parents. Christopher is suspicious of his Uncle Philip, who is not his real Uncle, but a family friend. After it is decided his parents are gone for good, Uncle Philip arranges for Christopher to move to England to live with his Aunt. He is educated in a British boarding school and grows up to become a detective. This is foreshadowed in the novel when his friends give him a prank gift of a magnifying glass (which he takes to heart).
As an adult, Christopher has a relationship with Sarah Hemmings (although it appears to be platonic). She takes him to a fancy dinner party where he meets Sir Cecil, who warns him of the impending World War.
After Christopher hears the rousing speech condemning evil and calling forth the armies of good by Sir Cecil, who helped build the League of Nations, the diplomat later confides to him in private that he fears another war will most likely break out despite the best efforts of humanitarian goodwill. Christopher Banks, a child of Britain's far-flung imperial empire, refuses to listen to Sir Cecil's logic of modernity. Christopher's idealistic task as detective is to “destroy the fungus before it takes hold and spreads.” Christopher is motivated to return to Shanghai to search for his missing parents (who by this time have been missing for decades).
Christopher returns to Shanghai during the tumult of the Sino-Japanese War that prefaced the outbreak of the Second World War. Christopher is able to locate his old house in the International Settlement, but it has been remodeled and barely resembles the house of his youth. The line between fact and fiction become blurred, and Christopher inadvertently finds himself in a battle zone between the Chinese and Japanese army. Christopher comes upon a wounded Japanese soldier, whom he mistakes for his boyhood friend Akira.
The rest of the novel takes place during the aftermath of the Second World War,
Eventually, Christopher learns that his father was not kidnapped. In fact, he had abandoned Christopher and his mother to run away with a lover and moved to Hong Kong. His mother had been kidnapped by a Chinese warlord named Wang Ku. She had become his concubine (and it is implied that she performed sexual favors for him). Uncle Philip is complict in the kidnapping of his mother, and as an adult, when Christopher finds him, Uncle Philip gives him the option to shoot him, but Christopher refuses. We learn that Christopher's education and life with his aunt had been funded by Wang Ku as a compromise with his mother. She agreed to do whatever he wanted as long as her son's life was secure. Christopher learns that his father had died of Typhoid Fever. Christopher finds his mother alive in a nursing home. She does not seem to recognize him, but when Christopher mentions his childhood name of Puffin there is a slight moment of recognition.
The novel ends with Christopher resigned to the facts of his life, and he takes solace in caring for the needs of his adopted daughter.
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked how unreliable a narrator Christopher is, even though we are supposed to trust him because he is a detective. I like how everything in his professional life is polished and presented without flaws, but underneath the veneer is a shattered young child tarnished by the absurdities of war.
Best scene in story:
I liked the scene between Christopher and the wounded Japanese soldier. As with many scenes in the novel, we are not sure if other character realize Christopher is crazy and just go along with his delusions, or if in fact Christopher did stumble upon the real Akira. Whether or not it is Akira, the conversation is touching and tragic.
Opinion about the main character:
I disliked how lost in his own past Christopher is, but I can understand his brokeness given the nature of his trauma, and the duplicty and backstabbing of the adults that were entrusted to his care.