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Song, an ex-policeman who now runs a private investigation business in Beijing, is approached by a potential client, but before he can help him, the client falls off the top of a massive office building, leaving behind the frozen body of his daughter. Intrigued, Song discovers that a number of children are going missing in an area outside Beijing, but the authorities seem determined not to investigate. And at the head of the non-investigation, is Song's former father-in-law, Chen Dalei. Can Song find out what has been going on without incurring the wrath of the authorities? And can he protect his son from Chen Dalei's guilty secrets?
I am always slightly suspicious when a writer decides to set a story in a foreign country, with the main characters of a different race to the writer. More often than not, this produces an unconvincing read. In this case, although Catherine Sampson apparently lives in Beijing, she is clearly not Chinese, yet it didn't matter. I really liked the main character, Song. Like most fictional detectives, he is not a straightforward character, having a complicated background - complete with an ex-wife, a child he doesn't really get on with and a complex job history. Yet, there is no attempt to make the reader feel sorry for him and somehow he seemed really fresh and different - possibly because his native background is so different from the Poirots and Dagleishes Western readers are used to. Whatever the reason, I was intrigued enough by the man to want to read more books in the series.
I also liked Song's sidekicks; Wolf, so-called because of his silver hair, and Blue, a female computer geek who is able to use technology to find out the machinations of the Chinese government. Wolf does not feature all that much in this novel - we know that he is a serial philanderer and had a brief fling with Blue, but he is kept in the background here. Enough information was given to whet my appetite for future books though. Blue features more heavily, particularly as we follow her to the UK, where she carries out part of the investigation, and reminded me very much of someone I used to know, so I found her very convincing. All in all, great characters, and I would be happy to read more about them.
What I really enjoyed about the book was that, having lived and worked in China, it brought back a lot of memories - it wasn't just the place names, it was the way the government organisations worked and the way people reacted to government officials. If I hadn't known that the author wasn't Chinese, I honestly wouldn't have been able to guess. She has done her research very thoroughly, and this made the whole story flow brilliantly for me. However, at no time is it too 'Chinese' - and I think that anyone, regardless of nationality or background, will find it an interesting read.
The story is a really good one, focussing primarily on the trafficking of children and the magical ability of the Chinese authorities to cover up what they don't want the public to know. It felt original because child trafficking is a crime that doesn't occur all that often in the West, but it was also written very compellingly, and I found it hard to put the book down. The way that the story is told helps to keep it fresh - the chapters switch between Song's story and Blue's side of the investigation. I liked this because it kept me on my toes so that I didn't have the chance to get bored.
Towards the beginning of the book, I found the writing style a little bit uneven. I can't pinpoint exactly what it was that was bothering me, but the writing didn't seem to flow right and it did stop me in my tracks. I'm not sure if Sampson's writing style improved during the course of the book, or whether I got used to it, but it didn't seem to be a problem later on. There are also a couple of plot points in the first couple of chapters that didn't ring completely true, but in the whole scheme of things, they aren't important enough to matter much.
I really enjoyed this book. The Chinese setting gives it a slightly exotic feeling, but not so much that it takes over from the story. I did guess the ending before it came, but ultimately, the story is a very good one, so it didn't matter all that much. In any case, I read so many books of this genre that I often work out the ending, but that doesn't mean that it will be obvious to others. I will most certainly be looking out for other books by this author. Recommended.