The Firemaker: Peter May
The stench of burnt flesh fills the air and your mind, soul and body as you feel the flames engulf you and you life is ended. No one sees you and there is no one to douse what someone has done to you as the gasoline that ignited the inferno surrounding you and the area you are in burns you to a crisp. The scene is graphically depicted and it starts the novel off in a grotesque manner as one man’s life ends, then exposed until we find out the identity of a serial killer whose reign of terror is just beginning.
Forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell is on her way to China for six weeks as a lecturer trying to tuck away in the back of her mind what happened with her husband and his tragic suicide. Working would keep her mind active plus dealing and learning the many nuances of how the Chinese investigate a case as opposed to the Americans creates much interest for the reader. Before landing in China she was told to read her briefing papers but did not which would proof embarrassing at first when dealing with not only the section chief but her driver Lily. Li Yan was just promoted to Deputy Section Chief and had to deal with the head Chief, his uncle’s influence when dealing with the higher ups since the promotion might have come because of his uncle’s influence and standing. The burn victim is one murder but another had his throat cut and the third shot. Margaret leads the way with the burn victim and her expertise helps to realize it was murder and identifying the victim. Li is methodically and realizes that the killer is a hit man from Hong Kong and we learn that the burn victim was a drug user and dealer and that he upon further forensic examination had AIDS.
Margaret and Li feel a chemistry that might get in the way of their investigations and also cause both to realize the differences in their cultural backgrounds while trying to solve three murders. Margaret and Li socialize quite a bit and in on one occasion on the way back from dinner and a drink they veer off to the site of the murder of the burn victim and the end result puts them in the crosshairs of both of their superiors.
Chao Heng is the victim and there are two others. A serial killer in China is on the loose and they do have the name and description yet this person walked into the police station and managed to escape leaving Li in a bad light with his superiors. Ruining her welcome event Bob McCord told everyone about the super rice that he created to help feed the population of China and other countries including the United States and around the world. Chao had a major role in this and they set up the super-rice research programme for the Ministry of Agriculture. But, there was another man named Pang who also played a role and the secret behind this rice will make you wonder if you should ever touch a it ever again. Billions and Billions of dollars would be made and the end result would be catastrophic as what the rice yielded and what they put into it would kill those with what they deemed the friendly virus within five years after ingesting the first simple and small piece of this rice.
Ketamine was found in the burned victim. The body in the park dealt with a small time drug dealer found on waste ground, the itinerant lying with a broken neck in a condemned siheyaun. The connection is slim nothing but a single stub of a Marlboro cigarette. Entering Chao’s apartment there was blood on the carpet and the body of victim and the forensic evidence led them to believe it was a serial killer. Things spiral out of control as the killer gets more brazen, Margaret is asked to assist on the other two murders but every step of the way you realize that someone higher up is stopping their ability to get the information needed. Deputy Procurator General Zeng for some reason wants to meet with Li and demands a written update every day on the case of the burned victim. Three murders in one night and the end result is he wants them solved but at what cost? Professor Xie is the head of the lab and it’s his job to provide the blood results to see if Chao had AIDS so why does he say he never got the request and when they approach him and corner him the end result is shocking and revealing.
When Li and Margaret go for dinner and too much to drink she winds up staying over in another bedroom in his home but someone ratted them out and she is now in violation of a law and is being told to leave China. She quits her job but in due consciousness the author brilliantly creates the final scenes letting you know that Margaret Campbell is a serious force to be reckoned with, is loyal to Li and the end result leaves room for more. With Li arrested for the murder of his Uncle and having to hope that he is not charged we learn that about someone close to him that offered help that was playing two sides and was a traitor due to the person’s loyalty to someone else. Lives are in danger and Margaret is the next victim unless someone comes to her aid she and Li will be history. Margaret learn that the deaths of many will be caused by an alcoholic plant geneticist and Li is arrested for his Uncle’s death. If they reveal the secret of the super-rice their the company that created it will go down and many others too. The history of China, the rationale behind the Red Guard and the differences in our customs are highlighted adding to the dynamics of the novel.
Lily Peng is her driver and seeks revenge for not being included in taking part in the investigation and she is someone that Margaret needed to watch out for more closely but sometimes you get blindsided by those you are supposed to trust. But, the characters play their roles in a straightforward way aligning themselves with the mores and customs of their countries but Margaret gets caught up in both and the conflict she sees rising when it comes to her feelings for Li might cost her more than her job but her life.
Jiang is her superior and wants no part of her after a while and wants her out of China. All forensics are sent to the Centre of Material Evidence Determination on the campus of the People’s University of Public Security that hired her to do the lectures. The only thing I would have wanted was for Margaret to do more lectures so that readers could better understand her strong suits and the importance of understanding how to do an autopsy. The graphic scene of the autopsy of the burn victim was valuable and enlightening and I can’t wait for the next installment in the Firemaker series.
Fran Lewis: Just reviews/MJ magazine