The Slaughter Pavilion
Forty years after his death, two of Bruce Lee's siblings reminisce about their famous brother's life and a legacy that is inspiring a whole new generation of fighters. Jo Baker reports.
by Catherine Sampson
Anyone who fancies dipping into the ranks of Asia's literary sleuths is certainly not short of choice. There's Colin Cotterill's gentle, thoughtful Laotian coroner, Dr Siri Paiboon, the hardnosed, Bangkok-based policeman Sonchai Jitpleecheep, created by John Burdett; and of course, that most holistic of detectives, C.F. Wong, conjured by Hong Kong's Nury Vittachi.
Chinese private investigator Song Ren is a more recent arrival and makes his second appearance in Catherine Sampson's The Slaughter Pavilion, which follows The Pool of Unease.
The story volleys back and forth between Beijing and the mainland countryside, with occasional - almost surreal - interludes in London, starting with a startling suicide from the top of a skyscraper in the Chinese capital, which Song vainly attempts to frustrate.
A police officer turned private investigator, Song is inexorably drawn into a web of murky events as he attempts to discover the truth. From the hutongs where his office is about to be demolished by developers to rural coal mines run with a blatant disregard for safety, the action takes place against a backdrop of social decay and moral ambivalence.
Song's moribund former father-in-law is up to his neck in corrupt deals, while his ex-wife Lina is in a relationship with Song's nemesis, the eerily named Psycho Wang.
Crime novelist P.D. James, a respected commentator on social issues, once noted that the detective story is not about murder but the restoration of order. Faced with what seems to be a personal armageddon, Song has few allies. Is there any hope for him, the victims or the country as a whole?
Herein lies the chief sticking point of this book. Sampson lives in Beijing, where she has worked as a journalist, so presumably she was confronted daily with material for her novel. The Slaughter Pavilion seems to have been strung together from a series of actual events - mining disasters, child abductions, rampant corruption - with Song as the central character trying to restore some sort of order.
The scenes of life in rural China are well drawn, with peasant farmers eking out a living, but characterisation is flimsy at best and some of the dialogue comes across as mere words stuck into the characters' mouths.
Rather than a murder mystery, The Slaughter Pavilion veers towards being a minor polemic against the current social and economic state of China. Only in the final pages are the events and motives given a rushed explanation, the loose ends tied off and Song returned to Beijing for the next in the series.
The reader is left with a sense of hopelessness rather than justice being seen to be done.
Perhaps this is Sampson's intention, but there is better, crisper Asian detective fiction elsewhere.