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Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite
Manchuria was a region of northeastern China that had long been the subject of territorial disputes and wars. China, Russia, and even Japan had, at times, imposed their wills on this giant portion of the Asian continent. In Special District: Harbin by Tim Stickel, we meet Borya Melnikov, a mixed-race junior policeman in the Special District of the city of Harbin. With a Russian father and a Korean mother, Borya had often found himself with a foot in both camps of Manchuria and its politics but had never felt a true part of either, being treated as an outsider at best and a mixed-race mongrel at worst. As the main breadwinner for his family, after the untimely death of his father, Borya had to forgo his own dreams for his future and enroll as a policeman to keep bread on the table from a steady income. Plucked from obscurity in the lower ranks of the police, when Borya is asked to assist the well-known and grizzled Detective Chinn, he is excited and realizes it is a real opportunity to learn from the famed detective and maybe make his name in the police force. When a body was discovered near the railway tracks in a northern city, Chinn and Borya are dispatched to check it out and find if it is related to their district and if they, therefore, have jurisdiction. When they realize it is the corpse of a missing German businessman from Harbin, the pair are thrown into a murder investigation that will take them all over the war-torn and dangerous wilds of 1929 Manchuria.
Special District: Harbin was a fascinating insight into a land and a people that have suffered and struggled for generations under different yokes of domination; Russian, Japanese, and Chinese. Author Tim Stickel paints a hauntingly realistic portrayal of a young man struggling to come to terms with his mixed ethnicity in a country so vividly divided along ethnic lines. As a mixed-blood, Borya is not truly accepted by any group and despised by many, a fact he discovered throughout his schooling years. This is a wonderful story of a young man’s battle for acceptance in a world that seems prejudiced against him. The absolute highlight for me is the beautiful relationship that develops between mentor and mentee. Borya learns so much from the old, wise, experienced detective, not just about police work but about life in general. The story flows beautifully from one crisis to another and yet nothing is lost in the search for the truth, despite the pair’s many setbacks. Historical fiction with a basis in reality is my absolute go-to and this book ticks all my reading boxes. I especially loved the locale and the history of a region that I’m sure will be unfamiliar to most readers. This is the essence of good writing; wrapping a fantastic story (in this case – a whodunit) in a cloak of discovery about the world and about different people. Tim Stickel has succeeded splendidly in this tale and it is one I can highly recommend.