cover image The Last Six Million Seconds: A Thriller

The Last Six Million Seconds: A Thriller

John Burdett. William Morrow & Company, $24 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-688-14774-7

Six million seconds are, in Burdett's second novel (after A Personal History of Thirst, 1995), all the time left until Hong Kong is subsumed by the People's Republic of China. Burdett means his book to be a scary cautionary tale as well as an enthralling thriller, and it is both. During the 10 weeks before June 30, 1997, Hong Kong Chief Inspector ""Charlie"" Chan Siu-kai--33, half-Irish, half-Chinese--attempts to solve a horrific triple murder. His investigation, which Burdett bolsters with much forensic detail (the victims were minced alive), takes Chan into an astonishingly complex power struggle over the future of Hong Kong waged by cynical British diplomats trying to hide the bloodstains on their three-piece suits, American mafiosi scheming to exploit a China ripe for anarchy and, most malevolently, a Chinese warlord planning to establish Hong Kong as his fiefdom, in part by purchasing a black-market A-bomb. It's a far-fetched scenario, but Burdett, who once practiced law in Hong Kong, lacquers it with the realism of intense local color and encyclopedic knowledge of the soon-to-be-former colony and its ways. His prose marches rather than flows, and a few of his characters verge on stereotype. But a strong and moral hero, intricate plotting, fierce dashes of violence and sex and, above all, the looming--if crassly portrayed--menace of Communist masters (""monsters who have been spawned by monsters to govern monsters"") will keep readers attentive right through the novel's bitter conclusion. Film rights sold to 20th Century-Fox for $1 million. (Feb.)