Hazel McHaffie


All in the name of art

The things folk will do for their art!

Author Peter May found himself in the People’s Republic on China by pure chance, taking advantage of a one-day trip advertised in his hotel. It was 1983, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution. So taken was he with its otherworldliness, that he spent the next eight years reading everything he could about the country – its history, its politics, its culture, its cuisine.

He returned in 1991, this time deliberately, in search of a story. Aware that no one had ever set a crime thriller in Beijing up to that point, he was determined to be the one to do so.

It took another six years for him to go back again, this time with the germ of a story, plus a ‘precious’ introduction to the Chinese police from an American criminologist, formerly detective, revered by the country’s most high profile law enforcers. Thanks to this man’s influence, May was admitted to the world of oriental policing, and over the next seven years was given privileged insights into every aspect of policing he needed. And so The China Thrillers series was born and grew, featuring Chinese detective Li Yan, and American pathologist Margaret Campbell.

So many years, so much patient spade work, such commitment. He continued visiting right up till 2004 and produced no less than six books in the series.

It was almost exactly a year ago, in October 2020, that I reviewed the last book in the series, Chinese Whispers. Perversely, I’m just now reading the first, The Firemaker, published in 1999, which I bought during the pandemic, sufficiently intrigued as to want to join the dots.

This one is packed with detail about Chinese psychology, geography, habits, customs, reactions, life, much of it cleverly conveyed through the medium of Margaret Campbell’s struggles to understand Chinese ways when she’s invited to work in Beijing. It even strays into my territory – genetics and viruses! I have to confess, in places for me if feels a bit too heavily researched, but I reckon if I’d spent that long on a voyage of discovery, I’d want to use the information too!

[Many many thanks to the generous souls who place their fabulous photos on Unsplash for others to enjoy. Rafik Wahba and Kit Sanchez, I salute you.]






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Viral overload

A surprising number of people have asked me when I’m going to write a book about a pandemic – however, word on the writerly circuit is that this would be ill-advised… for a long time. And it’s certainly not on my radar. But OK, the current pandemic has been uppermost in our thoughts for months, so I thought I’d look at a couple of modern novels written way before this present real-life Covid-19 crisis reared its ugly head, and see what a lively imagination can come up with.

Peter May‘s 2003 novel, The Runner, features endogenous retroviruses. What viruses, do I hear you cry?  Viral remnants found in every cell, an integral part of the human genome, normally dormant, but occasionally activated by external viruses and capable of causing catastrophic damage and the emergence of very dangerous diseases … sounding familiar?! In this case, though, it’s the musculature of the heart in young, fit, elite athletes, causing thickening of the walls of arteries, and heart attacks, which the pathologists are finding.

Section Chief Li Yan smells trouble when he sees a succession of such deaths among top athletes in China. Initially they appear to have been involved in accidents or suicide, but something sinister lies beneath the facade. They all reveal strange pathologies at autopsy, and all except one have completely shaven heads. Li has been protecting his pregnant American fiancée, Margaret Campbell, for her own sake and the well-being of their unborn child, but such is his disquiet, that only she will do for post mortem examinations on these young sportsmen. In the event, infection is the least of their worries, as they become embroiled in a far more deadly and macabre race against the evil genius behind these deaths.

And once again I’m hugely impressed by May’s careful research and ability to convey complex science – this time in the world of medical genetics – convincingly and understandably.

The other book just had to be Lockdown, again by the same author, and released this year. He actually started researching for it way back in 2005 – fifteen years before this current real-life pandemic. At the time he was finding it impossible to find a publisher for The Blackhouse (hard to believe, huh?) and his first Enzo book.

But May’s vivid imagination had conjured up a chilling scenario that arose out of his fascination with viral epidemics.  He wrote furiously during six weeks, burning the midnight oil – only to find no one would touch it; it was too unrealistic and improbable. But when the current virus we’re familiar with hit this year, the novel was picked up by Riverrun and came out while the author was himself hunkered down in his home in France, forbidden from leaving his home except in exceptional circumstances – because of Covid-19.

London is at the epicentre of a global pandemic. It’s in lockdown. A deadly virus – with a mortality rate of nearly 80% – has already claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands, and the health and emergency services are overwhelmed. Familiar jargon, huh? Family funerals and religious services are banned, grief is on hold, bodies are burned within twenty-four hours. The prime minister and two of his children are among the dead. An emergency measure has been brought into force banning the printing and distribution of newspapers. Civil disorder is simmering, ‘the debris and detritus of a once civilised society scattered across the ruined streets‘, and martial law has been imposed. Soldiers are prepared to shoot on sight anyone who breaks the curfew.

A temporary overspill facility is being rapidly built, until, that is, the construction workers discover the body of a murdered 10-year-old child in the pit they’re excavating. Because of a dire shortage of policemen, DI Jack MacNeil is called out of hiding in a refuge for down-and-outs to solve the case as fast as possible so that building work can resume. This is no ancient crime scene: the bones of the child – who is Chinese and has an unrepaired hare lip and cleft palate – are still fresh, and what’s more, they’ve been recently stripped of flesh by a knife. Enter the experts – except some of them are sick with the virus. And on top of all this, MacNeil learns that his own young son has died of the flu. He throws all his energies into finding the killer of this little girl, a last hurrah before he leaves the Met for good.

In both books there are elements that raise an eyebrow when it comes to believability, but my mind raced off along different possible scenarios for future novels. However, more than that, May’s experience illustrates two salutary things for me. There is a time to publish and a time to refrain from publishing. And even the top names can hit fallow times.

PS. I was amused by one throw-away line in Lockdown: ‘no self-respecting looter was going to be seen dead breaking into a bookshop‘ …!!!

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