Written by Peter May — Crime fiction fans know and love Peter May for his very atmospheric Lewis trilogy and we’ve reviewed The Chessmen and a recent standalone likewise set in the Outer Hebrides, Coffin Road. The author has since moved on to the Gulf of St Lawrence in Canada as a setting in Entry Island. But did you know that his very first crime series was set in China?
The books were first published between 1999 and 2004 but have been out of print in the UK. However, they remain hugely popular in French translation and have been nominated for many awards in France. Quercus Books is issuing new paperback editions of the so-called China Thrillers in English, and The Firemaker is the first.
China has experienced the most amazing and fastest cultural, social and economic transformation in modern history, and Peter May’s series reflects that. Through the two main protagonists, Chinese detective Li Yan and American pathologist Margaret Campbell, we experience the culture clash and uneasy path to mutual understanding between East and West. And, of course, this is crime fiction, not a historical or sociological treatise, so we have an intriguing plot and puzzle to solve as well.
A badly burnt corpse is found in a city park in Beijing, apparently a suicide. Visiting American pathologist Margaret Campbell is an expert in burn victims and is asked to help with the investigation, much against Li Yan’s wishes.The dentistry work indicates that this was no common labourer, but a high-ranking Party official. What link could there possibly be with a stabbing of a small-time drug dealer and the death of a construction worker, other than the presence of Marlboro cigarette stubs at the crime scenes? Back in 1999 they were a rarity in China.
This is police procedural with a difference, because every crime has the potential to become political in China. The link between the various killings point to a larger conspiracy about genetically modified foods, which involves both Chinese government officials, businesses and foreigners. The investigation becomes increasingly dangerous all those involved. While avoiding any spoilers, it is fair to say that there will be some casualties and fatalities along the way, until the truth is discovered. Alas, the truth does not always set you free. Although there is plot resolution, the ending remains unsettling, not least because the premise feels very plausible.
The tension between Li and Margaret – who are products of their respective cultures, even though they are also quite exceptional individuals – is nicely done. Just occasionally, there is too much emphasis on their love/hate relationship. It is easy to understand Li’s initial reluctance to allow a foreigner to become involved in the investigation. After all, he reasons, “We do not need some American showing us how it should be done!”
Margaret is also fed up with the constant lecturing from everyone around her on how to demonstrate cultural sensitivity. Forced to work together, the two bicker and insult each other both deliberately and unwittingly, but are also physically attracted to each other. This being the first novel in a series, there is too much description of the development of their relationship. Hopefully there will be less of that in the following novels.
Meticulously researched, this is an interesting example of Peter May’s early work and a fascinating insight into a police force few of us get to experience first-hand. You can forgive May’s occasional over-explanation of Chinese culture and clunky dialogue, when you remember that this was his debut and he was not quite master of his craft yet. I suspect the series will get stronger and better as it progresses, and may reach the high levels we are accustomed to from the Lewis trilogy and subsequent works.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars