Hazel McHaffie

crime thrillers

Chinese Whispers

I’m back to bestselling Scottish author Peter May again, whose books I’ve acquired piecemeal over the past couple of years. Since visiting the Outer Hebrides myself, I’ve reviewed novels from his Enzo Files series, and a couple of standalone tales, before tackling his most famous work: the Lewis trilogy. Time, I thought, to dip into another set.

Chinese Whispers is the last of six thrillers set in China and featuring Beijing detective, Li Yan. And as well as a certain fascination with a culture that’s five thousand years old, there’s an appealing historic context of recent conflicts and tensions alongside the stereotypical picture of poverty, over-population, one-child policy, proliferation of technology, the endless rules, face-masks, innumerable bicycles, we associate with this nation. The names sound authentic and are typically hard to embed in one’s mind even in their English form. The Lins and Lis and Lyangs and Mengs and Wengs and Zhus and Caos and Qins and Wus tend to coalesce confusingly.

But head of the serious crime squad, Chief Li Yan’s name did stick, together with his partner, Margaret Campbell, a pathologist, and mother of his son, Li Jon – appropriately as he’s suddenly become well-known after winning a prestigious award, getting his name and face plastered all over the newspapers. Not a comfortable development for a man who’s snooping around trying to find a killer. Because there’s a maniac at large on his patch – a cool, clever and calculated killer bent on a macabre mission – replicating murders. Not just any murders, but those carried out by Jack the Ripper in the 1800s, a man who was never caught in spite of the small radius within which he operated. This copycat killer in China is taunting the police with his slavish attention to the detail of each killing – horrific mutilation, taking trophies, setting up the death scenes. But how does he know exactly what happened to those girls in another century and another country? Well, a book on the subject has recently been published. Only trouble is, it’s only been available in Chinese for a week. However, the English version has been circulating for 18 months. So … does the killer read/speak English? If so, he’s flaunting the fact. And to add insult to injury he deliberately leaves his DNA in the form of the unsmoked end of a Russian cheroot at each crime scene. So, who is he? And how can he afford to be so brazen?

But then the killer’s modus operandi changes. He sends a letter to warn Li Yan personally of his intentions to kill again. And it happens just as he predicted … including cutting off the victim’s ears. But the girl in question is not the usual prostitute; she’s someone Li Yan knows and respects, a professional colleague. He is overcome with a terrible sense of guilt: somehow this was his fault. Furthermore the killer is implicating him in the crime, ratcheting up the stakes. Horrific ‘gifts’ begin to arrive – half a human kidney, a pair of human ears. And Li’s world – personal as well as professional – begins to unravel. His family are threatened. The pool of suspects is narrowing all the time but we’re kept in suspense to the very last chapter.

Peter May’s reputation is sky-high and his track record for meticulous research is widely acclaimed. And as you can see, I’m a fan. But because he has such a pedigree, I don’t think he would mind if I admitted to a sneaky kick when I noted two minor medical errors and the use of one very non-pc term in Chinese Whispers! There’s hope for us all! And somehow that makes him that wee bit more reachable.

Just two more unread May books left on my shelves – a treat to savour.

 

 

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