'I had already told her 1,000 times that I loved her. I tell that to all of them,' says the splendidly named Maurice Tinkler, commenting on a conquest in the non-fiction blockbuster Empire Made Me (Penguin) by China expert Robert Bickers. The statement epitomises the caddish attitude of the philanderer and career thug. After distinguishing himself by massacring Hun in the first world war, the Englishman joined the military police in Shanghai, where all relationships supposedly centred on power or cash and organised vice was rampant, manifested by opium dens, casinos and brothels. Tinkler threw himself into the job with a vengeance. He comes across almost as badly as the villains he corners, assaults and, in some cases, shoots, his ruthlessness accentuated by his racism. 'If we admit that any of the yellow or black races are our 'brother workers' and such tripe (when nearly all of them are only a shade above the animals), we are admitting our eclipse as they outnumber us fifty to one,' he once wrote to his sister. In his jacket photograph, with his steel-rimmed spectacles and thin smile, Bickers himself looks sinister. Face-to-face, the first impression seems justified. But the history lecturer at Bristol University in the west of England soon thaws and seems all the more human because his study could hardly be described as immaculate. How much does he sympathise with the foul but fascinating Buffalo Soldiers-style protagonist of Empire Made Me? Bickers replies that he finds it hard to sympathise with Tinkler. 'He thought nothing of verbal and probably physical abuse of those who were different to him because they were Chinese or Indian or Russian. But it's a story with pathos and I think that this is someone who really went wrong,' he says. Even though Tinkler was 'pushy' before the first world war, the conflict and the commitment of acting on behalf of the empire coarsened him. Bickers insists that his antihero was 'very intelligent', adding that, except when angry, Tinkler wrote absorbingly. Keen to drive home his point that Tinkler was more than a brute, Bickers says the average Shanghai policeman then could 'barely compose a postcard'. Bickers describes his relationship with the dead man as 'an entanglement' born of serendipity. The book resulted from a tip-off by the keeper of the department of documents at London's Imperial War Museum in 1989. 'I think you'll enjoy these,' the keeper said, handing him two boxes containing Tinkler papers. What attracted Bickers was Tinkler's paradoxical nature - his mixture of charm and chill which makes Empire Made Me one of the most intriguing true-life books of the year. Detractors may grumble that the contemporary world of books is already groaning under the weight of publications about empire bad-boys such as William Dalrymple's White Mughals and Nigel Barley's White Rajah. However, as Bickers says, these biographies are about toffs - the ruling class. Tinkler by contrast was pretty much working class, the man in the street transported to a rumbustious society which the sinologist captures with flair. 'There was noise, noise, noise,' Bickers writes, 'the clatter of the rickshaws, the unoiled squeak of the ubiquitous wheelbarrow, the cries of the street hawkers, car horns honking, ship horns blaring and steam whistles screaming, and the hubbub of the passing crowd.' As this passage suggests, Bickers shares Tinkler's affinity for China's first and liveliest city. 'I love the place,' he confirms, adding there is 'so much exchange, so much difference side by side'. Bickers also has time for Hong Kong, where he lived between 1971 and 1974 with his RAF father, who was stationed at Kai Tak air base. The writer encapsulates the territory as all noise, colour and smell - 'an amazing assault on the senses' and a refreshing contrast to the northern England steel town of Sheffield, from where he originated. The verve of Hong Kong was the trigger for Bickers' love affair with Chinese culture, which began with a wobble. He was thrown off a Putonghua degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the end of the first year for flunking his exams. He then headed for Taiwan, where he learned Putonghua off his own bat between 1984 and 1985. After returning to England, Bickers embarked on a degree in history at University College London, then earned a PhD in Chinese History at SOAS in 1992. The scholar's outlook on the empire reflects the ambiguity he feels about Tinkler. On one hand, Great Britain built bridges. On the other, it knocked down societies. In the end, defending his country knocked down Tinkler too. The outsider who, by his own admission, had no pals but dollars, died from a bayonet wound sustained in a 1939 confrontation with a group of Japanese marines. 'There is this photograph of him published on the front page of a Japanese newspaper on his death bed. He is looking at the camera and he probably knows he is dying and I know he is dying,' says Bickers. The author confesses that the book has 'big gaps'. Absent are 'dozens and dozens' of letters Tinkler wrote to his first girlfriend, Lily. But even without the input of this theoretical old flame, Empire Made Me succeeds in conveying the spirit of the clever cad's life.