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Charles Philipp Martin: Neon Panic: A Novel of Suspense

Vantage Point Books (Published October 2011)

A writer friend has been working on a detective novel involving Arnold Schoenberg for about three years, calling me every few days for musical explanations. She will never get anywhere with that book, since a whole Groves Encyclopedia wouldn’t make up for her lack of musical understanding or experience.

That is hardly true for Charles Philipp Martin. This is his first published novel, but his entire life has been spent in music, as bass player in various orchestras, including the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, the inspiration for Neon Panic.

This external thriller cum Policier is actually a conspiracy novel. One minor event swings out of control, with galactic unravelling.

First, a body is found in Hong Kong harbor by a minor police officer. Probably an Illegal Immigrant, one of the scourges of the ex-British Crown Colony. When the body, dressed in lower-class clothes, is found to have had a facelift, the suspicious Detective Inspector Herman Lok slowly learns that she is a prostitute with a yen to get into the movie business.

Mr. Martin now goes to the–supposed–opposite pole of dirty crime. He goes to the “Hong Kong Symphony Orchestra” (HKSO), an obvious alias for the real Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, which Mr. Martin knows very well.

Like the Hong Kong Phil, the HKSO has its share of scandals, including an incompetent Chinese conductor, a multi-ethnic orchestra with its racial quarrels, and a cynical personnel. But when bass player Hector Siebert’s best friend, a viola player, disappears, when the orchestra moving company is run by the Triads (Hong Kong’s ruthless Mafia), and when a rabble-rousing musician is also killed, then Inspector Lok gradually comes to see a coalescence of crime.

Mr. Martin’s plot is complicated but has its own logic. Within a few hundred pages, Mr. Martin has spread out to the power brokers of the People’s Republic of China, huge drug shipments, and a huge cast of characters, none of whom they are supposed to be.

The link is supposedly the orchestra. But Mr. Martin, as one-time player in the Hong Kong Phil, knows that this shouldn’t be.

“We don’t do anything important but play music,” says Siebert. “And that’s not important in Hong Kong because it doesn’t make money.”

I’m uncertain how many ConcertoNet readers will find this exotic orchestra of tremendous interest. But having lived in Hong Kong for far too many years, I can assure these same readers that Mr. Martin has depicted the most important fact of Hong Kong life, before and after its British life an its reversion to China in 1997.

Unlike other Asian countries where where corruption is accepted with humor as an accepted way to make the wheels turn, Hong Kong is very different. It is comprised of the two most arrogant hypocritical societies in history–China and the last of the Victorian British. And here, corruption takes a different turn, which Mr. Martin gleefully attempts to follow.

The most corrupt people I knew in Hong Kong were the most distinguished, eloquent, presentable moral people, raging against drugs, prostitution and gangsters. Like Southern landowners, who looked disdainfully at their vicious plantation managers, Hong Kong’s haute societé scorns the lower-class Chinese who do their bidding. But they are all part of this totally culpable society.

Mr. Martin packs Neon Panic with a grand opera of characters. The well-educated son of a billionaire who is bankrupt and deals with murderers. The Orchestra manager, who makes fine speeches but is at the mercy of Triad bosses. The music critic of the newspaper, a British wife made single because her husband had run away with a Chinese girl (“Yellow fever”) and out of frustration sleeps with the conductor. If this was a Shakespearean Dramatis Personae, they would take top billing because of their class.

The underclass would be the Police Force. Mr. Martin has obviously delved into the methods of the Hong Kong post-1997 force, and they are far far more efficient that I never knew them to be. (In the early 1990’s, their corruption and Keytone Kops inefficiency, both British and Chinese, was a plague on the Colony.) But the Police under Herman Lok are efficient, clever, sagacious with the intuition of a Sherlock Holmes.

Perhaps Mr. Martin has made them too ingenious, but he has woven so many threads in his skein that not even his near-400 pages would be enough if they weren’t so good.

Then come the musicians of the HKSO, and Mr. Martin has a good time with them. The Hong Kong Phil was always a pretty classy orchestra in their playing–conductors have included Maxim Shostakovich, David Atherton, Edo de Waart and Jorge Mester. But their personnel was exactly as Mr. Martin describe them. They are skeptical, proud of their playing, aware of orchestra politics and individuals in their own right.

(Siebert himself not only has perfect pitch, but is almost obsessed with identifying tones of beer-can openings and door creakings.)

Finally, we have the Triad gangsters, who, like cockroaches, are afraid of nothing, whose entire mentalities are based with destruction and greed, and who live in a symbiotic relationship with the elite of Hong Kong itself.

Mr. Martin excels in two vital categories. Although this is his first “novel of suspense”, he evidently knows the genre as well as he knows his double bass. After the two most incongurous premises are laid out, two paths of ineffable logic follow until the paths cross, and the paths of corruption and crime are solved (albeit with lots and lots of messy little crimes scattered in every corner.)

More important, he has described Hong Kong not only with detail–Cantonese phrasing, social and geographic strata–but with an understanding that the entire Hong Kong tapestry is based solely on money. Not what money will buy, not even the prestige, but the acquisition, greed and ruthless methods of obtaining money.

His details are exquisite. What does a billionaire father talk to his billionaire about at dinner? (Why don’t you have an heir?) Why does the Orchestra get so many suspicious requests to play the Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony? (They’re engineered by the lazy clarinet player, since the work doesn’t have any clarinets!). What does the most vicious Triad hit-man/killer think about when he isn’t hitting and killing? (That life is boring, people are boring, he feels bored.) How do educated Chinese think about educated foreigner in their territory? (That they are pretty dumb, living their but not learning the language eating the food or even attempting to understand the people around them.)

Will Neon Panic appeal to non-mystery fanatics or ex-Hong Kong Old Hands?

The former will find Mr. Martin’s adherence to rules of the genre in the final 40 pages (the most seemingly innocent are actually most guilty, dénouements and coincidences are inane, violence is unbelievable) may find such inanities off-putting.

Ex-Hong Kong residents should find that Charles Philipp Martin has adequately nailed down the septic odors and endemic nastiness of the territory.

Hong Kong’s glittering skin doesn’t readily surrender its skull to the casual visitor. But Charles Philipp Martin lived there long enough to display, within a limited genre, a society where vileness and ugliness are both accepted and respected.

Harry Rolnick




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