The tale begins with a cockroach race in a Hong Kong prison in 1927. Like guardian dogs outside a Chinese temple, the repulsive details warn away the weak of stomach. The setting is claustrophobic with pages of description of the disgusting cell. Anatole “Annie” Doultry is serving his sentence for arms dealing when his cockroach bests the “Wondrous Bird” of Hai Sheng. A pirate being hanged denounces Hai Sheng as a ringleader of pirates and curses him for betraying the gang. Doultry comes to his defense, claiming Hai Sheng was the cook on his ship.
Fan-tan is a game of chance. Following his release, Doultry is summoned to a gambling parlor in Macao, where he meets Madame Lai Choi San, a notorious gangster and the boss of Hai Sheng. She is grateful for Doultry’s lie. He gambles by refusing her reward.
Captain Doultry sails in a sampan across Hong Kong harbor. The description is atmospheric as night falls and joss sticks are lighted on all the vessels to Ma Tin Hau, goddess of the sea. He is brought to Madame Lai’s war junk and realizes she is the chief pirate known as Mountain of Wealth. She raises the stakes and draws him into her high-risk game.
The opening of the book is overwritten to the point of being treacly, but once the story gets its legs underneath it, it takes off. This is the gritty underworld of Asian crime, and Madame Lai is as bad as they come. The sweep of the story is cinematic, and the conflict is life or death. Doultry learns a hard lesson and teaches one, too.