In first-time author Gray’s serpentine thriller, an American lawyer becomes a pawn in a vicious power struggle sparked by the death of Chairman Mao Zedong.
Recently hired by Hong Kong’s largest law firm, Bryan Paton is tasked with traveling to Beijing to bring back the corpse of Fiona Li. Fiona, also referred to in the text as Li Guangmei, is a socialite whose father, shipping magnate Li Dak-chung, owns the firm. No one knows how or why Fiona vanished on her way to Beijing, but it soon becomes clear that the body Paton is asked to recover isn’t hers. Case closed—or so Paton thinks until he is prevented from leaving the country by Mao’s harridan widow, Madame Jiang Qing, who schemes to have him executed as a spy. It’s all part of her plan to subdue her rivals and taint the “moderates” who have been helping Paton locate Fiona. Unbeknownst to Paton, however, a plot is being hatched against Qing to avenge a crime she committed. The author, a former diplomat and China expert, delivers a deft, literate portrayal of the harrowing intrigue in post-Mao Beijing. With objectivity, he presents the resentment stemming from years of “the West and Japan put[ing] a boot on [Chinese] necks when they were starving and defenseless.” (Oddly, Gray never mentions the lease agreement Britain held for Hong Kong.) Despite the list of characters Gray provides at the start, the large number of players in this title may cause confusion. Moreover, gripping chase scenes, in which Paton becomes a veritable Houdini, fall just short of plausibility. But there’s a satisfying payoff when the secrets underlying the parallel plot lines are revealed.
A treat for China buffs, yet broadly appealing.