Special District: Harbin


Fiction - Mystery - Historical
302 Pages
Reviewed on 01/06/2021
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Author Biography

Tim Stickel is retired from the aerospace industry, but has had a lifetime passion for history. In addition to business degrees he has a Bachelor of Arts in Far Eastern history from the University of Washington.

    Book Review

Reviewed by Grant Leishman for Readers' Favorite

Manchuria was a region of northeastern China that had long been the subject of territorial disputes and wars. China, Russia, and even Japan had, at times, imposed their wills on this giant portion of the Asian continent. In Special District: Harbin by Tim Stickel, we meet Borya Melnikov, a mixed-race junior policeman in the Special District of the city of Harbin. With a Russian father and a Korean mother, Borya had often found himself with a foot in both camps of Manchuria and its politics but had never felt a true part of either, being treated as an outsider at best and a mixed-race mongrel at worst. As the main breadwinner for his family, after the untimely death of his father, Borya had to forgo his own dreams for his future and enroll as a policeman to keep bread on the table from a steady income. Plucked from obscurity in the lower ranks of the police, when Borya is asked to assist the well-known and grizzled Detective Chinn, he is excited and realizes it is a real opportunity to learn from the famed detective and maybe make his name in the police force. When a body was discovered near the railway tracks in a northern city, Chinn and Borya are dispatched to check it out and find if it is related to their district and if they, therefore, have jurisdiction. When they realize it is the corpse of a missing German businessman from Harbin, the pair are thrown into a murder investigation that will take them all over the war-torn and dangerous wilds of 1929 Manchuria.

Special District: Harbin was a fascinating insight into a land and a people that have suffered and struggled for generations under different yokes of domination; Russian, Japanese, and Chinese. Author Tim Stickel paints a hauntingly realistic portrayal of a young man struggling to come to terms with his mixed ethnicity in a country so vividly divided along ethnic lines. As a mixed-blood, Borya is not truly accepted by any group and despised by many, a fact he discovered throughout his schooling years. This is a wonderful story of a young man’s battle for acceptance in a world that seems prejudiced against him. The absolute highlight for me is the beautiful relationship that develops between mentor and mentee. Borya learns so much from the old, wise, experienced detective, not just about police work but about life in general. The story flows beautifully from one crisis to another and yet nothing is lost in the search for the truth, despite the pair’s many setbacks. Historical fiction with a basis in reality is my absolute go-to and this book ticks all my reading boxes. I especially loved the locale and the history of a region that I’m sure will be unfamiliar to most readers. This is the essence of good writing; wrapping a fantastic story (in this case – a whodunit) in a cloak of discovery about the world and about different people. Tim Stickel has succeeded splendidly in this tale and it is one I can highly recommend.

Vincent Dublado

Special District: Harbin by Tim Stickel is an original historical novel that holds a mirror before the reader to ask questions about identity. It tells the coming of age of Patrolman Borya Melnikov during the tumultuous times of Manchuria in 1929. He is just one of the many inhabitants of Harbin trapped in the growing tension brought about by Soviet aggression and a stoked Chinese nationalism that is starting to push White Russian privilege away. But for all of Harbin’s imperfections, Borya feels that he belongs. Having a Russian father and a Korean mother, the city for him is a majestic blend of logic and the mystical. When he is paired with one of the city’s top detectives to investigate the death of Manfred Geiger, a German businessman, they must navigate their way through bureaucracies, prejudices, back-stabbings, and the Red Terror campaign. In the end, despite his dedication and achievements, an edict is issued releasing all White Russian officers from the police force as part of the peace agreement with the Soviets. It is the last thing that Borya expected, and being a policeman is the only thing he knows.

These fictional characters live in factual events so that these people all seem to have existed. You do not need to be close to them to feel that they are pulsating with life from their backstories and sentiments. It is all in Tim Stickel’s showing and not just telling. He writes in solid, digestible prose that tackles a timeless subject about identity and nationality. It is the type of story that does not let you just sit there and be entertained. It is a thinking story that challenges you to ponder issues of identity, and whether or not identity can remain independent of culture and society. Special District: Harbin is a profound story that gives you a three-dimensional feel of the 1920s and all the political upheavals that go with it. This is a must-read for anyone interested in historical fiction for its representation and larger than life characters.

Pikasho Deka

Special District: Harbin is a historical novel by Tim Stickel set against the backdrop of Sino-Soviet tensions during post-civil war Russia in the Manchurian city of Harbin. Borya Melnikov is a Special District policeman who gets the case of his life when he is assigned to investigate the murder of a Caucasian man by Superintendant Liu. The investigation takes Borya and his supervisor Inspector Chinn to the Kwantung-controlled city of Changchun, where they identify the mutilated corpse as Manfred Geiger, a German employee of the Binjiang Products British Import and Export Company. However, things get complicated with the Soviet bombing raids and Bolshevik-led Mongol parties attacking White Russian farming villages. Following clues, the duo travels to the Mongol district of Hailar, where events take a drastic turn.

Special District: Harbin takes the reader to an immersive world of pre-World War II era northeast China, where a host of different cultures and ethnicities including Han, Korean, Japanese, Cossack, and Russian blend to form a rich, diverse, and vibrant landscape. Author Tim Stickel utilizes actual historical facts and events to pull off a tantalizing murder mystery that always keeps the reader guessing. The pages breeze by as Tim Stickel keeps the narrative at a steady pace with lots of character development and a fluid flow to the plot. I adored the scenes between Borya and Chinn, and their mentor-student relationship was my favorite aspect of the novel. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Special District: Harbin, and I would recommend it to fans of murder mysteries and history buffs alike.

Edith Wairimu

A masterfully-written historical mystery novel, Special District: Harbin by Tim Stickel features a young, obscure Special District policeman in 1920s Harbin, Manchuria. While working as a patrolman, Borya Melnikov is assigned to Inspector Chinn, one of Harbin’s most skilled detectives. Borya is excited at the prospect of working alongside Chinn. Together, they work to solve a harrowing murder that begins when the body of a white man is found in the then Japanese-controlled Changchun. The two set out to uncover the truth while also navigating the city’s cultural biases and dangerous political struggles. A keen observer and quick learner, Borya eagerly learns from his senior who becomes a great mentor to the younger man.

Special District: Harbin begins by offering a comprehensive description of the economic, geo-political, and ethnic issues in Harbin during the 1920s. The Bolshevik and Chinese struggle for control over Harbin forms a volatile situation, adding to the tension that surrounds the murder mystery. I liked that the prevailing circumstances were also reflected in the experiences of the book’s main characters. With a Korean mother and a Russian father, Borya Melnikov feels a special attachment to the city. Not only because it has been his home for the last twenty years but also because, like him, the city is a mix of different cultures. The pacing is easy and allows for the development of the plot and the inclusion of significant details regarding Harbin. Special District: Harbin by Tim Stickel combines great writing, extensive research, and a gripping mystery. The book is skilfully written and suspenseful. It is a must-read for every fan of historical/mystery novels.

Rabia Tanveer

Special District: Harbin is the first novel in the Harbin Mysteries series by Tim Stickel. The story is set in 1929 when we meet Borya Melnikov, a patrolman who is in for some strange days ahead. Being of mixed race is not easy, especially considering that his social standing is not that good. However, things take a massive turn for Borya when a foreign businessman turns up dead. Borya is partnered with one of the best detectives to figure out what happened and why the man was murdered. But that is not the only thing that Borya should be worried about. There is tension on the border with the Soviet Union, and the tension is high in the city too. It looks like Borya has to keep his friends close and his enemies closer if he wants to survive and prove that his ethnicity has nothing to do with the person he is. But can he?

Special District: Harbin is the kind of murder mystery that makes you sit on the edge of your seat and cheer on the protagonist. Borya is a smart man who is a little unsure of himself, but as the story continues, he develops more confidence in his abilities and the person he is. The background building is phenomenal. Tim Stickel adds just the right amount of action and mystery to the story, giving readers everything they need to stay hooked and want more. Out of all the secondary characters in the story, Detective Chinn is the one that stands out the most. He gives Borya a real chance to prove himself, and Borya learns to respect Chinn. The story keeps moving forward, there is never a lull, and the action is always an active participant in the plot. Special District: Harbin is definitely entertaining! I loved it. I highly recommend this book.