Margaret Campbell, a Chicago forensic pathologist, has been invited by the Chinese government to teach at the Beijing police university. She has accepted the six-week assignment with misgivings but is desperate to escape a troubled life in America. Arriving in Beijing, she checks “nothing to declare” on the health declaration they gave her on the plane—nothing, that is, “except a broken heart and a wasted life, neither of which was contagious.”
She gets off to a bad start when her car knocks senior detective Li Yan off his bicycle. In a furious clash, he dresses her down in perfect English. But Li soon finds himself reintroduced to Margaret by his superiors when the newly promoted detective’s first case requires Margaret’s special expertise to identify a horribly burned corpse. Thrown together to track down the killer, Margaret and Li must bury their personal and cultural differences when they uncover a conspiracy that threatens not only their lives, but the lives of millions.
I’m a fan of May’s work and I prefer the audio versions read by Peter Forbes who gives May’s beautiful language a melodic voice. His books are usually set In Scotland and the Hebridean Isles but these stories centre on an American woman in China and I wasn’t sure if I liked it at first. I soon changed my mind.
The story unfolds and the detective element is balanced nicely with a hint of romance but not enough to put the book in the romance genre. Margaret is a strong female lead but she has very little power in China where, the moment she opens her mouth, every conceivable faux pas pops out resulting in loss of face for anyone nearby.
Li’s reluctance to get involved with Margaret is palpable but when they’re thrown together, he slowly begins to warm to her. Li’s innate innocence is endearing but his current case takes a turn for the personal.
May’s beautiful description and eye for the aesthetics in life still shines through even though the difference between his portrayal of China and that of Scotland are worlds apart and that is what makes his books so addictive.