Kazuo Ishiguro appeared to produce a detective novel according to the book description of When We Were Orphans, but it is only worthy of that name in the sense of being a book about a detective. There is nothing in the novel that is redolent of the detective genre, although the novel’s opening appears to parody Arthur Conan Doyle’s style, except that the narrator is the detective rather than the detective’s friend and biographer. The novel goes on to go on a lot about not very much. The detective in question, Christopher Banks, was a celebrated detective in the 1930s, a sort of Sherlock Holmes transformed into Inspector Lestrade, yet we never see any of his detecting skills in action, although Banks’ narration and several secondary characters assure us of his brilliance.
The story divides between Shanghai and London as Banks moves from a troubled childhood in the International Settlement of Shanghai to England as an orphan after both parents are kidnapped in quick succession. By the time we meet Banks in England he has spent the rest of his childhood in Shropshire and been to university in Cambridge, but we encounter him in only one English environment: London’s upper class society circles. There he meets the main female character of the male dominated novel, Sarah the socialite who is searching for an intrepid husband.
These London sections of the novel build up very slowly to a return to Shanghai to solve the case of his parents’ kidnappings. He goes to Shanghai in 1937 just as the Japanese invasion is taking place. The earlier sections had presented Banks as a somewhat diffident character, but in this 1937 section he comes across as quite arrogant especially towards the Asians he encounters. This is in stark contrast to his childhood, where his main friend was the Japanese next door neighbour called Akira. Banks’ arrogance derives from his reputation as a detective and his conviction that from a distance of thousands of miles he has not only solved his parents’ kidnappings, but hopes to find them still alive and in captivity.
The languid narration style earlier in the novel does not present Banks as an enticing main character. When that is taken together with his presentation in the 1937 section as an arrogant Westerner the impression is that Ishiguro is sending up British imperialism in Asia. This interpretation is made more likely by the unlikely domestic setting of Banks’ childhood. His father works for a British company importing opium into China, while his mother is a lady of leisure whose chosen good work is to campaign against the opium trade.
If you are looking for a mystery novel or a police procedural you should look elsewhere. This novel about a detective moves slowly and almost exclusively in establishments circles, almost in parody of Agatha Christie. What we end up with is a postcolonial critique of the British Empire in Asia coming from a leading British Asian author.
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