THE WHITE TIGER By Robert Stuart Nathan Simon and Schuster. 431 pp. $18.95
IN 1913 Sax Rohmer invented a China ruled by brilliant evil mandarins with ambitions to enslave the Western world. Dr. Fu Manchu, his protagonist, suited the Yellow Peril mentality of the time and frightened the credulous through nearly half a century of almost successful intrigue.
At the same time that Dr. Fu was loosing his deadly insects on the British aristocracy, ("His cry was not, 'The red hand' but 'The red ant'!"), Pearl Buck's homespun peasants were fighting locusts for the produce of their inadequate fields and Ernest Bramah's Kai Lung was dispensing comfortable wisdom. The mysterious East, then, has fueled more than its fair share of fiction in support of a variety of philosophies.
Robert Stuart Nathan's The White Tiger does not concern itself with the traditional menace of the East, and in its painstaking detail it dismisses romantic mystery in favor of the workaday detective-story mystery of who killed all those veterans of the Long March. Protagonist Lu Hong is a mid-level official of the Bureau of Public Security. He must deal with a bureaucracy as multi-leveled and mix-purposed as all those with which lone men of good will deal in the crime stories of the Philip Marlowe-Lew Archer genre. Like those two fedora-helmeted knights, Lu Hong is much given to introspection and to wondering why he exposes his head to the contusions that come to those who look around inside the machinery of government.
The book that naturally comes to mind when reading The White Tiger is Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park, another "realistic" detective story set in a foreign culture and intended to be part puzzle and part travelogue. Unlike Smith's man, Lu Hong never gets out of China, but the moral trail he follows is almost step for step the same.
HOW authentic are the details of daily life in The White Tiger or those in Gorky Park? For the reader it is sufficient that they seem authentic. Cruz Smith told me once that he had spent only a few weeks in Moscow and that some of his best material had come from listening in on conversations in bars, hardly the haunts of more traditional researchers. Sax Rohmer's study of China seems to have been limited to some Limehouse evenings during his short career as a newspaper reporter. On one of those evenings, by his own account, he saw a richly dressed Chinese walk through the fog to a limousine and, asking questions about him, was told that such questions were unwise. From this investigative failure grew his great, inauthentic, immensely entertaining villain, Dr. Fu. Books that Rohmer set in Egypt, a country he had visited and studied, were so full of unnecessary lore about mummy cases and canopic jars as seriously to impede the action. Authenticity, then, is a two-edged sword that may cut off or carry on the reader's attention.
Robert Stuart Nathan thanks a number of experts on China, some native and some not, for help in making The White Tiger accurate in its portrayal of the People's Republic. As far as this reader is concerned, the details have the ring of truth, and if the revised spellings conscientiously used throughout seem no easier to remember or pronounce than the old ones, that is the kind of difficulty that serious readers dismiss along with the troubles some of us have with the shifting patronymics in Russian novels.
This China is clearly much more real than the mad Empire seen through the "long, magnetic" eyes of Fu Manchu. Here are no sacred white peacocks, no dwarfish stranglers. Instead, someone in the Civil Service is moving files around like a three-card monte expert, and Lu Hong -- in a well-worn convention -- is two steps behind and getting knocked off his bicycle when he closes in to one step behind.
In terms of characters this novel succeeds somewhat better than it does in plotting. There are perhaps too many threads, and too much time is taken in weaving them into a patterned and understandable whole, but we do have increasing concern for the safety of our new friend Lu Hong. We cheer his loyal assistant, we like his friends, and are rooting for the success of his romance after the failure of his marriage.
As a domestic drama The White Tiger succeeds, and we find a successful balance in the resemblances and differences between Hong's world and ours. If we do not get the exciting improbabilities of Rohmer, we are spared his racist cliche's.
Although The White Tiger much concerns itself with politics, it is not a political book. The heroes and villains are divided, not so much ideologically as by the older tenets of avarice versus honor or power versus -- to use a forgotten word -- propriety. Told that a European character is completely a friend of China, Lu Hong muses that "A man without loyalties to his own people was not likely to be loyal to China either. The last person in the world to trust is a man without loyalties." This could have been said by Ned Beaumont in Dashiell Hammet's The Glass Key. In Beijing the noodles are better and the cigarettes worse than in the other towns where lonely honest men fight the good fight, but in novels, at least, their chances of winning the fight are pretty good.
Heywood Hale Broun is the author of a memoir, "Whose Little Boy Are You?" and the novel, "A Studied Madness."