A nightclub on the wrong side of the river. A dead woman – wealthy and white – whose body is mutilated, the third such corpse to turn up in recent months. An angry detective with a chip on his shoulder, out to prove something.
I tried to figure out when Nine Dragons, Vancouver playwright Jovanni Sy's dark and frequently compelling new murder mystery set in Kowloon and Hong Kong during the British occupation is set, when it hit me like a punch in the face.
Nine Dragons isn't set in a specific decade. Nine Dragons is set in (Raymond) Chandler time.
That's the time when everyone's a double-crosser, someone's hiding something, any time's a good time for a few fingers of scotch, the light is always dim and shadowy and there's a corpse and a rich guy trying to explain away his whereabouts on the night in question.
All of which is another way of saying welcome to Kowloon, the working-class neighbourhood that's a world away, but only a brief commute, from the Peak, the Hong Kong neighbourhood where wealthy British people are the only ones allowed – except for the Fungs.
Nine Dragons is the first of a number of world-premiere mysteries by Canadian playwrights that Calgary's Vertigo Mystery Theatre, run by Craig Hall, is premiering (this one in a co-production with Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Gateway Theatre in Vancouver) over the 2017-18 season. It's a cross-cultural crime yarn that takes a British-centric genre and drops the British on their heads.
In Kowloon, the top cop in town, Nigel Dunston-Smith (Duval Lang) needs a detective with some heft – read, a white guy – to oversee a case that has suddenly escalated up the ladder of importance, which means it just won't do to go with Tommy Lam (John Ng), his finest detective.
Instead, Dunston-Smith enlists newbie Detective Heaney (Toby Hughes), partnering him with Lam, before whisking the two of them off to Nine Dragons, the most popular nightclub in Kowloon, to speak to Victor Fung (Daniel Chen), the son of wealthy Robertson Fung, to see if he knows anything about the dead woman.
Of course he does.
Early on, Nine Dragons is all about the macro aggressions.
There's so much overt racism flying around the stage in the first act that it almost feels as if the British forgot there was a murder to investigate because it might interrupt their racial superiority lectures.
It doesn't help matters, either, that Tommy Lam is the sort of stoic, just-the-facts-ma'am police officer who has learned that the best way to deal with the colonizers is to swallow their condescension and work around it.
There are always a lot of back stories to wade through in a murder mystery, and Nine Dragons is no exception to that rule – however, one of the pleasures of Nine Dragons is that Sy has taken a deep dive into a fascinating, sexy, conflicted place and time that is Hong Kong in the early 20th century.
The more time you spend with Detective Lam, who quits the force and goes to work for Fung in the second act, the more he starts to grow on you.
For one thing, he's having an affair with Dr. Mary Weir (Natascha Girgis), the local coroner, an interracial relationship that is not only taboo but puts him in a compromised position that Fung doesn't hesitate to exploit.
John Ng – who has a recurring role on Kim's Convenience – might be too stoic to truly love, but underneath, he's propelled by a searing sense of injustice that makes him a sympathetic figure.
That's more than I can say for Chen's Fung, who – with his Oxford accent and unwieldy exposition – comes across as more of a stock villain than a three-dimensional character.
However, at one point, Fung bursts into song in the Nine Dragons nightclub – Chen has an excellent voice – and it seems kind of throwaway, but actually does gives Victor Fung a little more dimension.
Director Hall has developed a brisk, economic style of staging these gritty neo-noir crime stories that he ought to copyright. Nine Dragons looks (with video design by Jamie Nesbitt, sets by Scott Reid and lights by Anton de Groot) and sounds (courtesy of Andrew Blizzard) as beautiful as it does sinister.
In the second act, Nine Dragons transforms into a whip-smart policier.
The pace picks up. There's peril at every turn. Lam, dressed now in pinstripes (by costume designer Deitra Katlyn), looks awesome. There's a whole subplot concerning opium dealing, double-crossing – always with the double crossing! – until Nine Dragons resolves itself in a hail of stage violence that makes for a satisfying redemption for Lam and his dark, sinister corner of Kowloon.
Nine Dragons is at Vertigo Mystery Theatre, Calgary, through Oct. 15; Tom Hendry Warehouse, Winnipeg, Oct. 25-Nov. 11; Gateway Theatre, Richmond, B.C., April 12-21, 2018.