“It was days like this, she decided, looking down at the rain-swept street, black days with a black sky and a heaviness in the air, that revealed things about Jane Hoyt—that Jane Hoyt didn’t like. The specifications called for a Jane Hoyt who was more or less one-dimensional, alert, well-educated major in English literature, matter of fact, sense of humor, American society pigeonhole number sixteen, which was located a little below the junior league pigeonhole and a little above the shopgirl pigeonhole… There was no allowance in the pattern for healthy girls, regardless of pigeonhole, who still had a renegade ghost of savage underlying their well-groomed exterior.”
- from Soldier of Fortune, by Earnest K. Gann
I picked this one up for the cover, which made me laugh, and because I felt like I’d heard of it. I vaguely thought it was a Western, and in a way it is, if a Western could be set in the East. This book takes places in British Hong Kong sometime before 1954 (when the novel was published) and after 1949, when Mao officially took control of China. It’s an adventure story firmly of that era, with a lovely glittery view of of capitalist good guys and communist evildoers that no one would publish now, even without inappropriate generalizations about the “Eastern character,” which, while not openly negative, still feel like a romanticized over-explanation for why one place is different from another place. Nevertheless, Gann’s a real novelist, and specifics are the salvation of novelists. Gann’s characters, including the locals, are multifaceted and fully human. Surprisingly, this is a novel about a woman, and told from her point of view, although the cover (rifle+cleavage in the background) and title feel like it’s being marketed to men (not to mention the quip on the front, which describes it as the story of “a renegade pilot and a frightened girl,”—rolling my eyes). I think it is good for all sorts of people, including men and authors, to imagine being someone different than who they are, so I won’t complain too much about that. Imagination is the salvation of readers.
Jane arrives in Hong Kong on a mission. Her husband, a photographer, has disappeared into Communist China to take photos, and he hasn’t come back out. He left her in America, but when she stops hearing from him, she pulls all her money out of the bank and comes after him. The Hong Kong she has to deal with is a man’s world, full of disillusioned British soldiers and policemen and the parasitic economy that follows them. Tracking her husband through it with people alternately patronizing her, propositioning her, and trying to rob her is a Herculean task. But just when she starts to get desperate, she meets someone who can really help her… and she starts to wonder if she really wants her husband back.
This book pulls off the adultery theme a lot better than Frenchman’s Creek, which I read a month or two before. For one thing, her love for her husband isn’t diminished or even really tainted by her new crush. This book treats the whole idea with a lot more pragmatism and empathy to all involved parties—a very progressive sort of approach along the lines of “these things happen” is adopted. And Jane doesn’t lose any respect from the reader, since she’s not lying to anyone, is still trying resolutely to save her husband’s life, doesn’t let anything go too far, and her husband might actually be dead anyway. She feels guilty but not so guilty that she annoys you by wallowing in it—there’s no time for that. She’s terribly brave—with a funny mix of naiveté, romanticism, confidence, and unflinching honesty that I’ve seen before in heroines of the 1950s. The ratio of action to reflection is very well balanced, driving the book forward, but still giving you something to think about after you close it.
Read if you like history, or 1950s war romances like A Town Like Alice. A great beach read, light enough to pick up and be able to concentrate immediately, but heavy enough to put down and be social after a couple of chapters.