Peter May. The Firemaker. UK: Coronet Books, 1999.
This mystery has everything: exotic locale (Beijing); strange murders; corrupt officials; genetically modified foods; and star-crossed lovers. For police deputy section chief Li Yan, the three men slain differently but with one common clue at each site had no known connections; thus no motive is apparent. Only one of the men had an important government job. Dr Margaret Campbell is a visiting American pathologist teaching at a local university. Burn victims are her specialty. The customs and culture of China are a vast unknown to her when she arrives, and her brashness initially pisses off several colleagues. Very soon Margaret is asked to autopsy one of the victims, and finds herself drawn into the investigation ― to the mutual discomfort of Li and herself.
The author portrays the distinctions and nuances of daily life in China as if he were a native. Margaret sees large slices of this as she accompanies Li around the city, meeting regular people, even sampling night life and food. Acquiring some history this way, Margaret is humbled and shares her expertise willingly. But insidious forces are trying to block the investigation, targeting this odd couple; someone is desperate to keep a big secret covered up. And the revelation is all too credible. Peter May is one of those crime authors with a beautiful command of language and craftmanship. In addition he has an empathic, encyclopaedic knowledge of Beijing and present-day China. Sheer pleasure!
At the top of the rise, Li stepped over the line of powdered chalk that ringed the potential crime scene and caught his first scent of burnt human flesh. (48)
She had exorcised ghosts from her past tonight, she had trusted him with her pain. (277)
Perhaps she was just cynical, but she couldn't help believing that the diseased, the dying and the hungry were simply meal tickets for scientists anxious to grab as big a slice of the research cake they could get their hands on. (312)
He smiled to himself as he heard her gasp of exasperation. Perhaps he was finally beginning to get her measure. (206)
Advice from an ex-pat:
"Not the most auspicious of starts," he said through clenched teeth.
"I didn't invite him," she said.
"You didn't have to engage him in open warfare."
"I wouldn't have had to if you people had the balls to tell him where to go."
"We couldn't!" Bob was in danger of raising his voice. He stopped himself and lowered it again. "McCord has connections in this town. His whole rice project had the backing of Pang Xiaosheng, former Minister of Agriculture, now a member of the Politburo ‒ and a national hero. It was Pang who persuaded the leadership to do the deal with Grogan Industries, and it's Pang who's reaped the rewards. He's the bookie's favourite to be the next leader of the People's Republic." Bob stopped to draw a grim breath. "And you don't fuck with people like that, Margaret." (40)
Her first class:
He grinned. "Don't take it personally. They're like that with everyone at first."
"What do you mean?" She sat up.
"Well, let me guess. You found them unresponsive, reluctant to answer questions, even more reluctant to ask them or discuss a point?" She nodded dumbly. "Chinese students aren't used to the kind of interactive classes we have in the US. Here, they tend to be lectured to."
I know the feeling, Margaret thought bitterly.
Bob continued, unaware of her growing desire to stuff her trainers down his throat. "The voice of the teacher is the voice of authority. Most students believe there is only one right answer to any question. So they just memorise stuff. They're not used to discussing, or debating, or expressing a view. But I'm sure you''ll win them round."
Margaret searched his face for that sarcasm she heard in his voice again. But again there was no sign of it. (65)
Li and Margaret walked slowly east along the sidewalk past brightly lit barber shops, small stores selling shoes and underwear and throwing great rectangular slabs of light out into the darkness. The sounds of washing up in restaurant kitchens came from open windows up narrow alleys. Li's hand engulfed hers and she was happy to leave it there, comforted by its warmth and strength. He knew a bar, he said, at Xidan. They could get a drink there. They walked in silence, his mind full of what she had emptied from hers. (263)
Anders de la Motte. Memorandum. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2015.
You'll get dizzy from so many factors in play here. The setting is Stockholm where Detective David Sarac has an almost-fatal car crash with subsequent memory loss. It's a race against time to recall what his recent police work involved before assorted sinister individuals hunt him down. Only David has the key to the identity of an important police informant called Janus. Ministry of Justice people, different levels of the police hierarchy, criminal gangs, foreign fixers, and his caretaker Natalie all want to learn who the man is, for widely varying reasons and purposes. A panoply of characters appear and reappear at a fast clip.
The suspense element is clear ― will David remember in time to protect his informant and keep their secret? But the suspense seems directionless for some time because the motives of those chasing him are opaque; nearly all are hiding their own secrets. Who could be double-dealing? And David can only recall pieces, sometimes hallucinating; help is provided by his best friend Peter Molnar, also a detective. The violent, climactic shootout is over the top with weapons and duelling factions. Still, a complicated tale with an unusual conclusion. De la Motte has already made his mark in Scandinavian noir with previous crime novels.
He realizes that his body is in the process of shutting down, abandoning any process that isn't essential to life support until the meltdown in his head is under control. (2)
The dogs stared at him with bulging eyes and curled their lips back so far that he could see the pink flesh of their gums. (163)
Top of the slippery slope:
"What do you want?" Natalie's voice wasn't anywhere near as calm as she had been hoping it would be.
"Open your laptop," the man said.
"Just do as I say, Natalie."
She hesitated at first. then reluctantly did as he asked.
"Check your inbox!"
The icon for a new e-mail was lit up. No message, just a link to a web page.
"Click the link," the man said.
She did as she was asked. The page loaded. A dull grey background, covered by black text and a 1970s-style logo. It took her a few moments to realize what she was looking at. (42-3)
At the root of it:
Wallin gathered his thoughts quickly.
"Intelligence management," he said curtly. "You are doubtless aware that other departments in the county have their own informants. Cityspan, the licenced premises division, the narcotics squad, and plenty more besides. Not to mention my own former workplace, the Intelligence Unit of National Crime."
Wallin smiled toward Bergh, but the look in his eyes was icy. The older man squirmed slightly but was wise enough not to respond.
"Sometimes the same informant reports to a number of different handlers, without their being aware that this is the case. The means that erroneous information from one informant risks being accorded far too much attention because the information is con firmed by several different police units, when their source is actually one and the same. And our intelligence material becomes less reliable as a result, as I'm sure you would agree, Bergh?" Wallin went on staring at Bergh for another couple of seconds, waiting until he gave a curt nod before turning to Molnar.
"Apart from this, it sometimes happens that certain handlers withhold valuable informants. Some of whom could be exploited more efficiently." (80)
"You're not the type to execute a defenseless man, chop his body up, and burn the remains beyond all recognition?"
"Well, no." For the first time Hunter looked slightly less confident. But he quickly recovered. "You see, Atif, my mother's family is from Bosnia. A number of my relatives died in the war. Murdered by people who used to be their neighbours, their friends, even. Because I speak the language, I spent several years working for the war crimes tribunal in the Hague. We tracked down people who had participated in atrocities, made sure they were brought to justice. Monsters, you might think. Sick bastards ..." He shrugged again.
"But it actual fact almost all of them were perfectly ordinary people. Full of excuses but without any real explanations for why they did what they did. It became obvious to me that everything is about morals. Establishing clear boundaries for yourself, and never, ever crossing them." (174-5)
Amanda Lindhout & Sara Corbett. A House in the Sky. USA: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2013.
An astonishing memoir by born-to-travel Canadian photo-journalist Lindhout ― true life drama surpassing fiction. In 2008 Lindhout and Australian companion Nigel Brennan were kidnapped in Mogadishu, Somalia, one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Held for ransom their families could ill afford, they spent a horrific fifteen months being hidden from the world in the most primitive conditions. The rebels who held them were Muslims embroiled in the faction-striven chaos that was (and is) Somalia. Lindhout is quite frank about the abuses they endured.
The most amazing and heartening aspects are the courage and survival extincts in the face of hunger, filth, physical deterioration, and constant threats. Lindhout's background is given as a prelude to her coping skills. As a woman she had even less respect, and worse treatment at times, than Brennan. They grew to know their captors quite well. Tiny kindnesses shown to them at rare intervals kept alive a small hope in humanity but deprivation and torture would increase as ransom discussions faltered. There are no apologies for their conversion to Islam in an attempt to ease their plight ... and no final word if it had a lasting outcome. Canada has a policy not to pay ransom for hostages. With only token government support and a great deal of fundraising, negotiations succeeded in releasing the pair in 2009. Heartbreaking.
I wondered sometimes whether it would have been easier if Nigel and I had not been in love once, if instead we'd been two strangers on a job. (2)
The chaos here felt edgy, dangerous, as if we couldn't keep ourselves outside of it and were breathing it in, as if it already sat in the lungs of every last person in that airport, the cyanide edge of a nasty war. (112)
They had figured out how to destroy me without totally extinguishing me. (340)
I'd like to say that I hesitated before heading into Somalia, but I didn't. If anything, my experiences had taught me that while terror and strife hogged the international headlines, there was always―really, truly always―something more hopeful and humane running alongside it. What you imagined about a place was always somewhat different from what you discovered once you got there: In every country, in every city, on every block, you'd find parents who loved their kids, neighbours who looked after one another, children ready to play. Surely, I thought, I'd find stories worth telling. Surely there was merit in trying to tell them. (105)
Ahmed had put the phone on speaker. He gestured for me to hold it away from my head so he could listen. There was a split-second delay between what my mother said and when I heard it, causing our voices to overlap uselessly.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
"Well, no, not really ... Are ... are you okay?"
"Yeah, we're okay," I said.
Her voice cut over mine. "Okay."
It felt as if the two of us were swimming between enormous ocean waves, dropping in and out of each other's sight, shouting into wells of water. (160)
Learning the Koran:
The leaders―Ahmed, Adam, and a third tall man we'd come to call Romeo―appeared to be reasonably well-off, with cars and expensive-looking clothes. Captain Yahya and Ali seemed to be middle management, while the boys had been given little more than a weapon, housing, and food, plus the conviction that Allah was behind them.
"Jihad," in Arabic, means "the struggle." There are two types in Islam, the greater and the lesser. Both are seen as noble. The greater jihad is inward, the lifelong striving of any Muslim to be a better person, to ward off temptation and desire, to maintain faith. The lesser jihad is outward and communal and violent when called for―the struggle to defend and assert that faith. For our captors, this jihad involved fighting the Ethiopians, although our kidnapping was wrapped into the cause. Not only did we come from "bad" countries, as Ali put it, but any ransom money they got, he said, would get channeled back into the larger fight. (163-4)
I could hear the squawking of a phone on speaker being carried into the room. Skids held it to my face. Mohammed kicked one of my dead legs. The line crackled and spat, but my mother was on the other end.
"Amanda? Hello? Hello? Hello?" she said.
"Mummy," I said, too drained to muster anything else, my need for her keener than it had ever been. "Mummy, Mummy, Mummy ... Mummy ... Mummy ... Mummy ... please." (338)