Hour of the Rat by Lisa Brackmann isn’t the type of book I normally read (ie. not literary fiction), but sometimes I like to mix it up a little. I must admit that I was initially initially drawn to the book because of its cover. I became more intrigued when I discovered that it was about a female American Iraqi war vet living in Beijing. That kind of breaks the mold of most mystery/thrillers. A little more research revealed that Brackmann’s previous novel Rock Paper Tiger was a New York Times Notable book back in 2010 and was, in fact, on my To Be Read list.
Though the story in Hour of the Rat starts in Beijing, the protagonist, Ellie, spends most of the book travelling to different tourist and industrial locations in China. She is trying to find the brother of one her friends and uncovers the fact that he is an eco-terrorist of sorts. That is not good news in China.
The most engrossing aspect of the novel is the window it gives into the inner workings of post-Communist China. I was fascinated by the descriptions of the newly developed eco-tourist industry catering to both foreigners and young Chinese. It is a different world than that of Cultural Revolution China, and yet somethings stay surprisingly the same. This is complemented by a look into Chinese factories, the plight of farmers and the life of the new ultra rich.
Who would like this book? As I mentioned above, I do not generally read mysteries and find myself unable to evaluate it effectively on those terms. I will say that I found it a little long at times. But I would recommend it highly for its cultural insights into modern China. There are a great number of mystery series out there that are set in foreign cultures and do a magnificent job of immersing the reader in that culture. Donna Leon is famous for her portrayal of Venice, Barbara Nadel does the same thing for Istanbul and John Burdett take the police procedural to Bangkok. Brackmann’s books set in Beijing could certainly be added to this list. Definitely good vacation reading if you are headed to China or prefer armchair travel.