Archaeologis and Chinese art expert David Armour disappeared in 1941, in Peking.
He resurfaces in a mission hospital in a rural Chinese province in 1947, with no memory of the previous six years.
He can’t remember anything and nobody seems to know what happened.
There’s stories, though – some say he collaborated with the Japanese occupation forces, others claim he became a guerrilla leader fighting the Japanese.
Back in Shanghai, David will have to patch together the events of his missing years – meeting his estranged wife Adrian, feeling the pressure of a number of parties that want to use him, or take control of his life.
Then there’s the story about the four missing T’ang bronzes whose whereabouts he might know – and have forgotten.
And his other wife – the one he doesn’t remember.
The Nightwalkers was published in 1947, and it is currently available as an ebook for about three bucks.
The author, James Norman, was a well-traveled American, as we can see from the bio in the back of the Penguin edition of his novel.
The book is a noir-ish adventure yarn, filled with danger and mystery and a conspiracy or two, a story that would work great as a movie (just imagine a black and white version featuring Kirk Douglas as Armour).
Norman handles the atmosphere perfectly, spicing up the story with a ton of believable details about post-war China.
Seen through the eyes of the bewildered, time-shifted Armour, China is really an alien world, its people strange and inscrutable.
This is not simply Orientalism, or exoticism – Norman is using color and strangeness to compound the sense of disorientation that the reader feels together with the protagonist. A protagonist that is also discovering his own past, and in a sense, his new self – one shaped by those six years he can’t remember.
There is a growing sense of unease, the impression of never catching the whole picture, of something always missing.
Stylish and atmospheric, The Nightwalkers is a great forgotten novel and it deserves a second chance.
If you still have a slot free in your Christmas list, this might be a great addition.