Chinese Whispers (China Thrillers, #6) - Peter  May

Chinese Whispers (China Thrillers, #6)


Peter May

 This is one of those books that I really should have judged by its cover--or, more specifically, its title.

The story centers around Li Yan, a detective in Beijing in the serious crimes squad. His almost impossibly good case rate is broken when he is faced with a serial killer who is preying on prostitutes in the city. When something about the terrible atrocities performed triggers his memory, he realizes that the killer is mimicking the murders of Jack the Ripper. Li is determined that this Ripper will not be allowed to remain anonymous. As the murder count begins to mount up, Li realizes that his problems are even bigger as a conspiracy within the police department threatens his reputation, his job, and even his family.

The book is entertaining enough. I liked most of the side characters, and I enjoyed the descriptions of Beijing. The murders are certainly colorful--and far too graphic for wimps like me. I also learned more about Jack the Ripper from this book than I ever wanted to know--why he was called "The Ripper," for a start. I really only had two major issues with this book. Granted, I don't think it's much of a whodunit, but this book breaks what for me is one of the cardinal rules of the whodunit: it provides a false clue--a false scientific clue, no less--that it then retracts at the last minute. I was initially frustrated because the villain is so patently obvious and because of the detective's sheer unadulterated idiocy. (For instance, if a girl dies right before she wanted to tell you something about an irregularity in a test of five men, it shouldn't take a hundred pages for them to make it on the suspect list.) Then the false scientific clue is inserted, invalidating the obvious solution. We are told that DNA doesn't match at the crime scene, so there are two killers. I started to get interested again. This is later retracted as a 'lab mixup'. Even more problematically: I'm pretty positive that anyone in police admin would have their DNA in the databank--ours certainly do. But I guess the author didn't think of this. ] A few hundred pages later, this scientific "fact" is retracted and the solution turns out to be the frustratingly mind-numbingly obvious one. I love murder mysteries, and I'm an inveterate theorizer, so I think providing false facts is just unfair. If you have to win the game by cheating, I don't really want to play.

The second was, to me, even more fundamentally problematic. I should have guessed it from the title: the brash,offensive term "Chinese Whispers"--an ignorant American expression that portrays the Chinese culture as incomprehensible-- is really very emblematic of the novel. There are really two main characters in this story: Detective Li and his American wife Margaret. Margaret's portion was, unfortunately, more distressing than unrealistic. She behaves in every way as an "ugly American" and made me positively wince in shame: she lives in China, but never bothered to learn the language. When she has to stand in line for twenty minutes, gets frustrated, and shouts at and throws personal insults at the woman at the counter, she feels victimized and wronged when the woman retaliates. She has a guest and attacks his profession, asserting that his (renowned) work is "voodoo". All this is portrayed as natural and reasonable, as if the Chinese are being absurd for objecting. While it made Margaret a devastatingly unlikable character for me, it might have actually been a rather impressive stab at creating a character perspective that is truly unique from that of the author--if only this precise attitude and viewpoint weren't carried into the rest of the story. Well over half the story is told from the perspective of Li, and yet to me, the entire book has the voice of an American tourist. Some examples: we have characters speaking pidgion English, sometimes unnecessarily. At least once a page, some allusion is made to "the Chinese people" or "the Chinese way" or some such generalization. Every aspect of the culture that is slightly different than American is pointed out as "the Chinese __", etc. I don't know about you, but I don't tend to think or describe my everyday actions in terms of "the American way" unless I'm speaking to a non-American. Only an outsider or someone speaking to an outsider would even think in those terms--people native to a country tend to make distinctions between provinces rather than making blanket generalizations about their entire country. Even when they do, it is from the perspective of their culture being natural and other backgrounds being strange. I might think of "the Californian way" because currently the conventions here are unfamiliar to me; I would describe them in terms of how they differ from the east coast with the assumption that the east coast is "natural". This book does the opposite: all of Chinese culture is described in terms of its differences from American culture, with the assumed cultural basis being American. To me, this was jarring, and the easy use of generalizations extremely irritating.

Overall, I think that the book is entertaining and I enjoyed learning about a city I know very little about. However, mechanics and writing perspective significantly degraded my experience. I may avoid judging books by their covers, but perhaps I should pay a little more attention to their titles.