TAKE NO NAMES, by Daniel Nieh
It’s challenging to write a noir novel set in the modern world. After all, a reliable aspect of classic noir is that the shiny veneer of a placid community is ripped away, revealing teeming rot and societal corruption underneath. (Think of James Ellroy’s “L.A. Confidential” or David Lynch’s film “Blue Velvet.”) How, then, do you set a noir in a current global moment when it feels like rot and corruption are festering all too often in plain sight for everyone to see?
Daniel Nieh’s second novel, “Take No Names,” tackles this problem elegantly, at least for a while. It’s a thriller for the global age, with characters tangled in cross-border conflicts and international intrigues. Our hero, Victor Li — whom we met in 2019’s “Beijing Payback,” to which “Take No Names” is a sequel — arrives as a bit of a loser, a good man set on a drifter’s path by the murder of his father and a seismic revelation about his Chinese family’s past.
As our story begins, Li’s living in Seattle and working for Mark, an ex-military huckster who sells high-tech security systems, only to turn around and rob his customers. They’re eking out an existence until they stumble on an ingenious scam: burglarizing a storage facility that’s run by the federal government, where the purloined possessions of the recently deported are stored. As noir goes, it’s a sharp conceit. They’re stealing valuables from someone who doesn’t own them but who has stripped them from people who have no hope of ever getting them back. Victor and Mark are simply the remora fish feeding off the shark of the system.
The plot kicks in with the trusty arrival of a MacGuffin; in this case, a box that Victor discovers among the belongings of a woman named Song Fei, who’s been deported to China. Inside the box, there’s a gem — painite, a conflict stone mined in Myanmar, the legitimate sale of which is forbidden thanks to sanctions. “Painite without papers,” Mark murmurs, when Victor shares his potentially lucrative discovery. “That’s about as easy to sell as enriched uranium.” Thankfully, the box also includes a cryptic clue to a mysterious buyer in Mexico City. And off they go!
Two thugs on the run, a forbidden gem and a far-flung destination: So far, the mixture is simmering nicely. Victor and Mark wend their way toward the border with a ticking clock in their rearview (they left the storage-facility manager incapacitated in his office; when he’s discovered, the law will be hot on their trail) and a fortune beckoning on the horizon. The action is brisk, the dialogue snappy. Once the pair arrive in Mexico City, the story crackles, feeling nicely plugged in to the overheated power grid of an interconnected world.
Then “Take No Names” detours into an entirely different novel, shifting abruptly toward global skulduggery, corporate malfeasance, secretive paramilitary units and spectacular explosions — something more akin to “The Bourne Identity” than “The Maltese Falcon.” Maybe this is Nieh’s moment to rip away the facade and reveal the world’s corrupt inner workings. But as a consequence, the novel becomes untethered from the engaging, human-scale story that’s grounded it so far. Some readers may enjoy this bait and switch, while others, like me, might feel wistful for the more modest road-trip novel they’ve been enjoying so far.
Still, by the end Nieh has laid out a handy road map for global noir in the modern world: characters torn between nations, exploiting a system that is itself inherently exploitative, getting swept up in international currents that they barely comprehend. If one lesson of classic noir was that the world isn’t always as it appears to be, Nieh’s novel embraces a different viewpoint: The world is crazier than you know and maybe even slightly crazier than you’d hoped.
Adam Sternbergh’s most recent novel is “The Blinds.”
TAKE NO NAMES, by Daniel Nieh | 304 pp. | Ecco | $28.99