“Walking into her apartment, both of them laughing at something he’d said, the man made a mock bow for her to precede him, his eyes already seeing the room, darting around it, looking for something to kill her with.”
So begins Tony Kenrick’s Neon Tough, a novel published in ’88 and set against the backdrop of Hong Kong’s impending return to Chinese rule. I think it’s a great opening line for a suspense thriller, complex and elegant, building a world and a mood and then subverting both, all in a handful of words. In lesser hands it would be the lead-in to some grim procedural of forensic misogyny, but Kenrick’s a writer of a different class. Which didn’t prevent his American publishers from cutting the line and the entire prologue that followed it.
I can add little in the way of hard info about the man himself… as with the elusive Adam Diment, he seems to have done his stuff and then exited the public stage leaving little in the way of information beyond old press handouts and flap copy.
He produced fourteen novels in a two-decade run. Not everything in the Kenrick oeuvre works for me, quite; for my money The Night-time Guy has an unlikely premise (a hero who’s blind, but only in the daytime), while The 81st Site has a slam-bang action set-piece ending that doesn’t involve the book’s protagonist.
But I find much to enjoy and much to admire in Kenrick’s writing, and reckon that the very qualities that make him shine also hampered him commercially. Every book was something different, and versatility can be an obstacle to success in a market where the big names get big by finding something that works and then repeating it, even to the point where the author can step away from the franchise and let someone else drive. The bespoke one-off, the artisan thriller, is rare beast in today’s jungle.
Kenrick’s last published novel was Glitterbug in 1991. The Madonna/Sean Penn bomb Shanghai Surprise was based on his novel Faraday’s Flowers, and it’s tempting to imagine that the lacklustre mangling of his material destroyed the will to go on. But I expect the reason was something more… I dunno. Prosaic.