East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

A hard trick to pull – Yellowthread Street


Marshall-YSYesterday’s writing prompt reminded me of Yellowthread Street – a series of crime novels by Australian author William Leonard Marshall.

And I don’t know if Marshall being an Australian this qualifies as Other People’s Pulp, but I thought I’d do a post on the subject just in case.
After all, the theme of the novels fits the theme of this blog, so…

I found out about the existence of Yellowthread Street through Bish’s Beat, the blog of crime novelist Paul Bishop, and the idea of an Ed McBain-like police procedural set in Hong Kong before the handover intrigued me quite a lot.
So I got me the first book in the series – which is called Yellowthread Street, and was published in 1975.

And I was blown away.
I know, I know, talk is cheap.
You don’t believe me?
Dig this…

As Detective Inspector Phil Auden went through the door of the Yellowthread Street Police Station in the district of Hong Bay and the day shift left, night fell, seven Jumbo jets carrying a total of two thousand tourists, businessmen, wives and others landed in procession at Kai tak airport, an American destroyer disembarked eight hundred bored, thirsty, lustful, belligerent sailor for forty-eight hours shore leave, and the Chinese Communists across the border took it into their heads to turn the water off.
Constable Sun looked up from his desk and said, ‘They’ve turned the water off.’
‘Shit!’ said Detective Inspector Auden.
Four streets away from the Yellowthread Street Police Station where Detective Inspector Auden said ‘Shit!’ and Constable Sun shrugged, a man named Chen went back to his room in Cuttlefish Lane near the fish markets with an axe and used it to halve his wife and quarter her boyfriend.
Bill Spencer said, ‘When was that?’
‘Just now,’ Constable Sun said, ‘my brother rang me to ask if I could get him some.’
‘How are you supposed to get him water?’ Auden asked.
Sun shrugged.
‘Hey,’ Spencer said to Auden, ‘Inspector Feiffer left a message he got a tip on the rickshaw basher. He’s gone down to the harbour.’
‘Does he want me?’

… and this is page 3 on my copy of the book – this is how the novel begins.

2bd0012912a0ae442ba13210.LMy copy is very very used and abused – it was a library copy, and the Avon County Library decided to give it away, and donated it to the Salvation Army (I guess), and they sold it to me for 30p, or roughly 50 eurocents plus mailing expenses.

And I don’t know about you – but please go and read those lines again…
Done? Fine.
I don’t know about you, I was saying, but back when I started writing my own stuff the serious author types told me you don’t go and write a story in a style like that.
Absolutely not.
It’s against the rules, or something.

And yet, ever since I first read that novel – and I must have read it five times – I’ve been telling me that’s exactly the way you write a story, especially a story of crime and alienation set in an exotic locale.
And screw the serious writers, if you please.

marshall-perfect_endThe hard bit is being able to write like that.
The style of Marshall is sprawling, apparently chaotic and very cinematic – it’s easy to visualize each page as a sequence of shots in a movie.
And yet the reader never gets lost, the action never gets so complicated it becomes hard to follow, every single word on the page is absolutely necessary, there’s no waste, no excess.
It’s hard as hell, writing like that.

And the Yellowthread Street novels feature a large cast of characters, normally involved in multiple investigations and in a number of personal matters.
And in the end everything falls in its place neatly – if not painlessly for the characters involved.
Pulling this sort of feat is the mark of a first class author.

The Yellowthread Street series comprises sixteen novels – I have two others, and I plan on catching the rest.
One has to study carefully used books offers, because there’s not many reprints, and no ebooks – and it’s a damn shame.

There was also a 1990 TV series based on thebooks – and they tell me it was pretty sucky, but I’d like to see a few episodes anyway.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

4 thoughts on “A hard trick to pull – Yellowthread Street

  1. Bit late to this, as I was to the Yellowthread Street series. But I agree. They are absolutely awesome. I love the way William Marshall writes and in these times of doorstep books, I’m amazed at how he manages to weave several different mysteries into one fairly short book.

    My first introduction to the books was from the TV series actually. It aired when I was about 15 and I was completely in love with the exotic locale and had a massive teenage crush on two of the actors. I remember getting one of the books from the library and being hugely disappointed in them – they were nothing like the TV show. It didn’t help that I had picked up Frogmouth first which opens with a detailed massacre of loads of animals in a zoo. It put me right off and I never finished the book.

    Speed forward a few years out of the naff taste of my teen years and I managed to get hold of a copy of the show which rekindled my interest. I thought I’d try the books again – they were all out of print but I found a copy of the first one which had been printed by a niche crime publisher and had an awesome cover. I bought it, devoured it, and quickly got the rest of the series through Amazon (in most cases from the States at ridiculous prices for used books – totally worth it). I loved every single one of them – yep, even Frogmouth – and am currently reading them all again.

    The TV show is pretty sucky and is nothing like the books. But it has great music, great locations and I loved that Yorkshire TV tried to do something a bit different. The does have one good episode called Spirit Runner (my favourite), which was written by William Marshall. It uses a short bit from The Hatchet Man where O’Yee nearly runs over a bunch of students trying to scare away their evil spirits. Unlike the rest of the episodes, it manages to captures a little bit of the quirkiness of the books.


    • Thank you for your comment, Emma.
      Always good to meet another Marshall fan!
      I’ve yet to see the series, but what you tell me about location and music is good news – at least there are some redeeming features!
      I’ll have to find the time (and the money 😦 ) and track down the series and the few books I’m missing.


  2. It’s so good to find someone who has even heard of these novels, let alone like them!

    Someone has uploaded some of the episodes of the TV show to YouTube. Spirit Runner is there. I’d be interested to see what you think of the show. It’s nowhere near as good as the books, but it does have a certain kitschy appeal. Some of the books have also been released as e-books on Amazon as well. They have great covers – I wish they’d release the series in proper paperback.


    • Oh, this is good news – I had searched the series back in the day, but it was not available on Youtube.
      I’ll watch it certainly, and then do at least a post.
      And great news about the ebooks, too!
      Thank you!


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