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A Fatal Deception at Shanghai by Richard D. Colbert 

The story was pleasing and had a lot of potential, but issues in execution made for a confusing plot and inconsistent character development. 

A Fatal Deception at Shanghai has a lot of promise to be a first-rate murder mystery, especially with its initial setting in 1920s Shanghai among the expat polo set. However, the story’s delivery is incomplete, unpolished, and confusing, almost as if it were the author’s notes and first draft. 

The plot has potential: a wealthy but shady businessman drops dead from an apparent poisoning aboard a private yacht off the coast of China, surrounded by several family members who will greatly benefit from his death. More deaths quickly follow. Three uninvited guests on the ship are immediately suspected of murder even though they have everything to lose and nothing to gain from it. Literally, EVERYONE on board thinks they are Sherlock Holmes and attempts to investigate the murder, which, honestly, was one of my favorite plot elements. 

Shanghai in 1926 is an irresistible draw as a setting, and it felt like the author did some research on the time and place with pictures and illustrations as a nice addition. Having the action take place in the elite world of international polo was intriguing and unique. However, neither aspect had much to do with the plot, and both are left behind 30% into the book when the story moves to a private yacht for the duration. The book could have been set anywhere with the same result as Shanghai, and polo makes little impact or leaves much of an impression. 

The relationships between the characters are, for the most part, underdeveloped and, at times, unclear. For example, Evelyn Beckmann gets some attention early on, but hers is a confusing picture. Is she a somewhat sheltered debutante who blushes at the mention of the mysterious writer she sees at The Astor or a bold hussy who publicly puts her arm around the waist of a newly met Army lieutenant as she invites him to a private dinner back at her hotel? Then, she practically disappears from the story once everyone is on board The Golden Eagle. 

Finally, the story is told to the reader rather than revealed through action and dialogue. I often felt like I was reading a story summation and not the actual goods. Much of the conversation is formatted like a script, with the character’s name listed, followed by their line and accompanying stage directions. However, when presented as a dynamic part of a scene, I often couldn’t tell who was speaking. I did think that the slang and language used by some characters was good, for example, the jockey Stevie West or McClearn, but that was inconsistent. 

Assigning a rating to this book is difficult because the star descriptions here don’t match how I felt about the story. I enjoyed it for what is apparent underneath a very rough presentation. I cannot recommend this book in its current iteration; however, I fully believe the author has the bones for a very good thing here, perhaps even a great jumping-off point for an eventual series featuring Sheldon, McClearn, and maybe West. I urge him to take this to a good editor and flesh out these bones. 

I voluntarily reviewed this after receiving an Advanced Review Copy from Reedsy Discovery.

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