Reviews for Jade Rooster

From "Cold IS the SEA", 28 May 2012: "Jade Rooster: A Review"

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The penultimate novel of the US Navy is Richard McKenna's The Sand Pebbles. For those of you who haven't read it (or haven't seen the movie), it takes place in 1926 China, on the cusp of (and during) a period of upheaval known as "The Northern Expedition". In this time-frame, Chinese Nationalists lashed out at Western powers and Chinese warlords alike, in an effort to unify the country. The (anti) hero of the book is a sailor whose home is whatever ship he's stationed on. He has an empathy for his engine room and indigenous personnel alike, in radical contrast to his shipmates from whom he becomes increasingly alienated. McKenna wrote it when he arrived on the Asiatic Station, ten years after the events of the book took place. I seem to recall reading a quote attributed to him saying something to the effect of, "All the guys who had been here during the trouble were still talking about it."

I read The Sand Pebbles at the age of 16. It's a powerful and very evocative book. The milieu of 1920's East Asia has a strong allure. Dangerous, exotic, a clash between tradition and modernity. A man could be a man, etc. Who wouldn't want to visit, even if only in their mind's eye? I searched and searched in vain for a similar book. Notwithstanding McKenna's disappointingly brief The Left Handed Monkey Wrench it wasn't until years later that I stumbled on Delilah, by Marcus Goodrich. Here was another novel, as authentic as The Sand Pebbles, about life in the Asiatic Fleet. The author had run away from home as a teen and wound up enlisting in the Navy at 16. He later on he went to Columbia for undergrad, became an officer and eventually married actress Olivia de Havilland. As an enlisted sailor, he found himself in the Philippines, and if we are to surmise from a character in the novel similar to the author, a little too smart for his own good. Published in 1941, Delilah is about the crew of a destroyer, from the boilers to the ward room, on the cusp of WWI. Admittedly, some parts of this novel were tough sledding for me. Goodrich uses words that I never knew existed. His characters take some dizzying philosophical flights. None the less, it's a phenomenal novel. If you're a "COIN guy", you might be interested in the fact that Delilah's primary mission was to conduct population-centric counterinsurgency operations in the Sulu Archipelago, where American troops are still involved today. Given that we're leaving Okinawa, our presence in the Philippines may become important again.

Which brings us to Jade Rooster by RL Crossland. Jade Rooster is a novel also set in the same East Asian milieu as The Sand Pebbles and Delilah. The book is ostensibly a "hard boiled murder mystery" that roams between Japan, China, the Philippines and Korea, with an equally compelling enlisted anti-hero sailor (and a cast of comparatively fascinating characters), yet...there's more. The author is a former SEAL, with experience in Vietnam and beyond. This experience counts and enriches the novel significantly. Though he transplants his novel to another time, you can tell that the author understands that fascinating nexus between the spheres of the diplomatic, intelligence and military communities. What's more, Crossland's knowledge of seamanship, diving, martial arts, East Asian history, maritime history and culture, and revolutionary warfare elevates this book above and beyond the mystery genre. Much like reading George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series, the author's real-life experience in harm's way informs the action sequences of the novel and gives them a realistic feel. All of these characteristics combine to make this a piece of historical fiction that breathes in a way very few other novels do. I was leery at first, then drawn in completely. I couldn't put it down.

The above image was inspired by the novel. Too even describe the context, would provide too many spoilers.Take a look at Crossland's site, Dreadnaughts and Bluejackets. His links section contains articles on Naval Special Warfare that he's written for Proceedings and an op-ed for the New York Times.



From the Unset Alarm Clock:

Jade Rooster by R. L. Crossland.

As we move deeper into the first decade of the 21st century, perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to be coming across more and more books set in the early 20th century. Just in the last few months, I’ve seen Ronan Bennett’s Zugzwang, Rhys Bowen’s Lady Rannoch series, Barbara Cleverly’s Joe Sandilands and Laetitia Talbot series, Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series, Anthony Flacco’s Randall Blackburn series, Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series, Clare Langley-Hawthorne’s Ursula Marlow series, Michael Pearce’s Mamur Zapt and Sandor Seymour series, Jody Shields’ The Fig Eater, Frank Tallis’ Lieberman series, and Kate Furnivall’s The Russian Concubine.

Crossland adds his name to this list with an interesting look at a mystery involving the U.S. Navy in the waters off Japan and Korea during the 1910s when the Island Empire was in its ascendancy and annexing its neighbor. An American merchant ship has gone missing, but the severed heads of three of its crew and one passenger are found in baskets in one of the ship’s whaleboats set adrift. Two men: Sabatelli, representing the insurance company, and Quartermaster Hobson, representing the Navy, are ordered to find and salvage the ship. Their investigation will uncover a complicated underworld involving the Japanese military, U.S. Naval Intelligence, the Korean New Hwarang fighters, double-dealing gun runners and agent provocateurs.

Like most of the better HM authors, Crossland includes a great deal of historical information as he lets the mystery unfold. Similar to the Captain Hoare story, there is a lot of nautical jargon here, but it does not overwhelm the tale. Also, like Pearce's Seymour, Hobson's ability with languages and empathy for the native population are vital in gathering information. The narrative wanders a bit with tangential sub-plots and Sabatelli disappears for a long stretch of the action, but eventually everything comes together. The writing is not helped however by the poor editing done by Broadside Press. There are several typos and mistakes throughout the book.



From December 2007 issue of United States Naval Institute Proceedings:

Jade Rooster
Captain Roger Lee Crossland, U.S. Navy Reserve (Retired). Lake Junalaska, NC: Broadsides Press, 2006. 263 pp. $17.95.

China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines of 1913 may be unfamiliar historic or geographical venues for a complex, nautical mystery, but Jade Rooster acclimates itself and showcases a solid, captivating flair for gripping, detailed, exhilarating fiction.

The author wields a unique literary sword, with minimal feints, within an intricate labyrinth of clues and barrels of fascinating data, naval and cultural. Descriptions by clothing, language, and character of heroes (clever, intuitive Quartermaster Hobson, his buddies Oyster Pirate, Tiger Cheng, buck dancer Jackson), simpatico mudangs (shamans), and various high- and low-lifes alike, are flawless. Action and script, occasionally horrific with everything from severed heads to sperm whale intestines "up or down current like scuttlebutt," is contextually appropriate.

Crossland's pirates/bandits/opportunists, in name or demeanor, are more Pirates of the Caribbean than the Mikado/ Penzance variety, but Wallace Beery, Popeye Doyle, Steve McQueen, and Orlando Bloom would blend-in with a theme song from Puccini by the Grateful Dead. After story-integrated brain teasing, tantalizing event and name dropping illusions, the author amiably serves up a summation of historical facts to help readers cull out the fictions.

Roosters—jade, barnyard, barques (funnels), tattoos, et al—symbolized victory during 19th and 20th centuries, teach courtesy per the Talmud, constitute the tenth sign of the Chinese Zodiac, and purportedly protect from yin energy, "the unseen world." Readers feast on plenty of that—in a challenging but eminently engaging and titillating spellbinder.

Reviewed by Alice A. Booher



From the quarterly, The Connecticut Muse, Summer 2007, by the author of Last Refuge and Two Time, who is presently a finalist in the CT Book Awards:

If Patrick O'Brian Read More Noir..., September 18, 2007

Jade Rooster
By R.L. Crossland
Reviewed by Chris Knopf

There are worse things than being compared to Patrick O'Brian. And that's good news for R.L.Crossland, because comparisons between his historical naval thriller/crime story and the tales of O'Brian's Captain Aubrey are inevitable.

Both share an almost hypnotic evocation of the past, with rich descriptive detail and an encyclopedic command of nautical terminology and the vernacular of the times.

Where they begin to part company are the times themselves - for Crossland, it's early 20th century Asia, in particular Japanese-occupied Korea. A time that most readers, even lovers of exotic sea yarns, will find unfamiliar. Crossland's style, like O'Brian's, effectively captures the mood of this extremely alien environment, signaling from the first pages of the book that this ain't Kansas, Toto. So get ready for something completely different.

The other crucial distinction is that Jade Rooster is at heart an intricate murder mystery, complete with a self-possessed amateur sleuth in the form of Petty Officer Third Class Hobson of the U.S. Navy, a full complement of picaresque characters of questionable morality and several very nasty villains.

The triggering event is the disappearance of the merchant ship Jade Rooster, on a seemingly routine voyage from California by way of Hawaii. Not insignificantly, a tender from the freighter, a whaleboat, has been discovered aimless and abandoned with a cargo on board you could reasonably describe as gruesome (the behavior of some of our current jihadi terrorists come to mind, which should give you the drift).

Hobson's parents were missionaries who raised him in the Far East. Fluent in Japanese and Korean, as well as the hard ways of a seaman's life, he's the ideal choice of the Navy to assist the civilian investigation of this heinous crime on the high seas.

For better or worse, he's also a man of independent thought and resourcefulness, temperamentally incapable of towing the party line, be it military or civilian.

The story moves quickly across geographical and cultural boundaries, landing the reader in occupied Korea, a land chafing under Japanese domination. Hobson's own internal conflicts are ignited by his search for the missing vessel, and a brief encounter with a beautiful, and dangerously free thinking Korean beauty from his past.

Along the way, Hobson is swept up in the revolutionary intrigues of defiant Koreans, the magical mysteries of native shamans, the venality of merchants local and global and the underlying geo-political tensions between East and West that will ultimately erupt into global war.

Though clearly an aside, one of the most entertaining segments of the book is an honor race between a rowboat of Hobson's Pluto, a humble collier, and that of the grand warship Baltimore. Hobson has been given the task of recruiting and training the Pluto crew, and the ensuing contest is both an engaging interlude and an opportunity to see more deeply into Hobson's essential nature.

This is a book for careful readers accustomed to complex plots and non-linear narrative styles. And for lovers of military adventures and good old-fashioned detective stories. If you fit into any of those categories, Jade Rooster is a feast.



From the Bookshelf of Columbia College Today, September/October 2007:

Jade Rooster by R. L. Crossland: 70.

This nautical novel by a retired Navy officer, set in the "the hardboiled underworld of early 20th Century Japan" features an eccentric Columbia scholar named Stuyvesant Draper (Broadsides Press, $17.95)

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