Barbara Ludman reviews The Slaughter Pavilion, Thirty-three Teeth and Fear of Animals
Beijing these days is a city of rapid and often brutal development. In the city’s drive to modernise crews are constantly replacing ancient, ramshackle structures with high-rise, high-priced tower blocks. Outside the city village life meanders along much as it always has, with elders making the decisions and peasants, artisans and shopkeepers forced to go along.
The two Chinas collide in The Slaughter Pavilion. A peasant ties a sack containing his dead, frozen child to an advertising hoarding on the roof of an office block in the capital, shouts ‘this way everybody will know”, and leaps to his death. Private investigator Song had turned him away the night before. Feeling guilty, Song allows human rights lawyer Jin Dao to draw him into an investigation involving missing children — including the dead child — from a village a few hours’ drive from Beijing.
Song, his tiny sidekick Blue and his cousin Wolf featured in an earlier book by Sampson, who followed a Leeds University degree in Chinese with lengthy stints as Beijing correspondent for the BBC and The Times, and is still a resident of the city. Her pacing and plotting are impeccable and her portrait of the country is fascinating.
Thirty-Three Teeth features Laotian coroner Dr Siri Paiboun. The series is billed as an eastern answer to Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana stories, which could be true if one left off the mysticism, because the protagonist is appealing and so is the setting. Dr Paiboun, who channels an ancient spirit, is an elderly, disillusioned former communist who spent much of his life in Paris and has been hauled out of retirement in his Vientiane home to serve the Lao People’s Republic. He tends to stumble across interesting puzzles which he’s quite good at solving — like why people keep falling to their deaths from the attic of an office block. In this, the second of six books, a black bear escapes from a cage behind a hotel, a tiger is seen prowling the neighbourhood, people are being savagely killed and in the middle of the tumult Dr Paiboun is summoned to the former royal capital to look at a few corpses, mysteriously burnt. He’s a delight and so are his friends and colleagues, but if the spirit world puts you off, you should skip this one.
In Fear of Animals, crime reporter Evaristo Reyes has joined Mexico’s federal police to get the inside story on the corruption that pervades the force but is seduced by the easy money, perks and drugs floating about — until he’s ordered to knock off an arts writer who insulted the president. Somebody else kills the man, and Reyes, who’s blamed for the crime, has to find the real killer. His search takes him into the heart of the country’s literati: ‘These people formed an impenetrable and hostile circle against those on the outside, a cultural circle, like a lifestyle — the more he got to know the little cultural world and its environs, the more convinced he became that it was not what you read but how you projected this to the outside, turning it into an attribute of your personality, that enabled you to enter.” There’s a lot of graphic sex, a lot of violence and the kind of tortured interior monologues one tends to find in certain kinds of European novels as Reyes wrestles with what’s left of his conscience.