Death Takes Small Bites by George H. Johnston (1948)

Newspaperman Cavendish C. Cavendish (known as Jed to his friends) is driving the wants Burma Road, or as he calls it “The Road of Adventure that hasn’t got any adventure anymore.” His beliefs are soon challenged when, after giving a lift to Charmain Anthony, they are caught in a landslide, almost plunge off a bridge into the Mekong River, and then shot at by an unknown gunman in the hills. Their dangerous journey turns deadly when, after stopping at an inn, Cavendish finds the stabbed body of a girl. Then Charmain disappears, apparently taken by the killer. The one enigmatic clue to her whereabouts takes Cavendish on a pursuit through a plague-ridden city, and into the hands of a Chinese secret society. What began as an uneventful journey soon becomes a race just to survive.  

I obtained my Penguin edition of Death Takes Small Bites about a year ago, thanks to Kate over at Cross Examining Crime, as part of my first Coffee and Crime: Vintage Mystery Book Lovers Box. I’ve had it on my TBR ever since, but other books kept popping up and I just kept pushing it further down. That wasn’t very bright of me, because once I started reading it, what I found was a suspenseful thriller that I didn’t want to put down. 

The story is a simple one. Two travelers stumble into a criminal conspiracy and get caught up in dangerous circumstances. There is plenty of action and an atmosphere of fear and suspense that mounts steadily. A typical “potboiler” that Johnston wrote to subsidize his dramatic writing, but his talent as a writer makes it so much more. 

There is great appeal in the way in which Johnston brings his characters to life. At the start, there is nothing out of the ordinary about these characters. They’re just two strangers who don’t initially really like each other. But, as the story unfolds and the situation keeps changing, the choices they make reveal underlying depth. That’s something you don’t normally see in stories such as this. 

And then there is the added value of the setting. Johnston describes China, with its variety of peoples, fascinating cities, and splendid landscapes, with beautifully vivid prose.

“On the far side of the valley the azalea forests were splashes of raw brilliance in the black-caverned greenness of the mountain, and the road curled through the loveliness like a broad and casual stroke made by a brush dipped in vermilion.”

This is an action thriller with polished storytelling, appealing characters, and evocative descriptions. If you’re in the mood for an adventure, and if you can find a copy, I recommend this highly.

NB – George H. Johnston was an Australian journalist, war coorespondent, and novelist, better known for his semi-autobiographical novel My Brother Jack. In addition to many other works of dramatic fiction written under his own name, he also wrote five detective books under the pseudonym Shane Martin.

My Judgment – 4/5

Vintage Mystery Extravaganza—2014 Bingo—Read one that features a crime other than murder 

2 thoughts on “Death Takes Small Bites by George H. Johnston (1948)

  1. Glad you liked this one. I’ve not tried anything by this author before so it is interesting to read your comments on him. The setting seems intriguingly unusual. Think I have only read one other classic crime novel set in China, (which is not in the Judge Dee series) – James Norman’s Murder Chop Chop – I think it was called.

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