|CREATIVE TRUTHS IN PROVINCIAL POLICING
Chief Hung Duong is head of the small police force in the southern Vietnamese town of Dalat. When his daughter Lila, blinded in a horrible accident, is to marry a local Party bigwig, Duong borrows 500 American dollars from Mr Mei, who has a finger in every one of Dalat’s criminal pies, and signs a contract that includes a clause that should (in theory) never affect him. When his new son-in-law is gunned down before the wedding is even finished, and the 500 dollars disappears, Duong discovers that a life of crime might be the only way to save Lila from a life of prostitution in Mr Mei’s brothel.
Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel, Creative Truths in Provincial Policing, feels like a wild departure from her 2013 debut, The First Book of Calamity Leek, but the two have more in common than will be obvious at first glance. For her second outing, Lichtarowicz takes us to rural Vietnam and gives us front row seats as the life of the local police chief, Chief Duong, falls apart around him. As with her previous novel, the strength of Creative Truths lies in the pitch-perfect characterisation, from the placid Chief Duong and his high-strung wife, through the manic Mr Mei and his odd mannerisms, and the huge cast of supporting characters who make this world feel vital and fresh.
A farcical comedy of errors, Creative Truths is an off-the-wall tale that relies on a series of bizarre events and coincidences to get from point A to point B. Its power is in the author’s ability to grip the reader from the first page, and not give him or her time to breathe as she relates this series of tall tales: the death of Duong’s new son-in-law and the subsequent activation of Clause 46cii in his contract with Mei; how a gang of animal activists stealing primates from the region’s businesses is deemed more important by Duong’s superiors than catching a murderer (and the shady business goings-on that back up the decision); the kidnap of international soccer superstar, Sam Porcini, and the harrowing events of his incarceration. And through it all, the disintegration of Duong’s family and – it would seem – his very sanity.
There is an otherworldly or timeless feel to the story and, as with Calamity Leek, there is a feeling that the story might be taking place on a plane different from our own. The isolation of the location and the backward nature of the town of Dalat conspire to make us feel out of our depth, putting us at Lichtarowicz’s mercy for the duration. As the story progresses, we begin to get glimpses of normality, hints that this is the world as we know it, despite never having seen this corner.
Lichtarowicz’s narrative combines the oddness of Nick Harkaway’s worlds with the laid-back approach to Asian-set storytelling that Colin Cotterill does so well. Often laugh-out-loud funny, there is a strange undercurrent that leaves us feeling uneasy (why, exactly, does Mr Mei insist on riding a menagerie of stuffed animals?), surfacing in a handful of well-placed – and well-written – scenes that will linger long after the book is finished. As coincidence piles on seeming coincidence and the various threads of the story begin to converge into a single coherent whole, it becomes obvious just how cleverly-constructed this tale has been, how well-manipulated we have been by the events that have unfolded before our eyes. Everything is meticulously planned, with not a single word out of place.
Anyone picking up Creative Truths in Provincial Policing expecting something in a similar vein to The First Book of Calamity Leek will be surprised at just how different Paula Lichtarowicz’s second novel is. But the key elements are all here: well-drawn characters, an engaging and very original plot, and a narrative voice like no other. Creative Truths is a wonderful second novel and one that is impossible to put down once you’ve made the start. It cements Lichtarowicz’s place as an author worth watching and leaves the reader wishing and hoping for more. You may not come away with a burning desire to visit Vietnam, but you won’t read crime fiction in quite the same light ever again. Either way, it needs to be one of your must-reads for the year.