Although the mystery plot that Barnett weaves in this first novel is more jaded than jade, he royally compensates through his splendid realization of an exotic setting: 1949 Peking on the eve of Mao's takeover. As Red troops surround Peking, Bei Menjin, Chief Inspector of the Peking Police, faces two baffling cases: the burning alive of a Taoist priest by monks, and the serial killing of the city's top courtesans. Bei's puzzlement intensifies when he learns that the dead priest had a lover, the beautiful Meiling; and when General Fu Tsoyi (warlord of north China; one of several real historical figures seeded throughout) shows interest in the priest's death. A lead sends Bei to Hangchow, where he learns that the priest was a Red agent linked to a secret Taoist monastery, The Purple Mountain. Meanwhile, as Gen. Fu dallies with his mistress, Meilu, and prepares to negotiate with the Red Army, more courtesans are savagely slashed. Returning to Peking, Bei makes a daring bicycle trip through Communist Mines to The Purple Mountain, where he finds Meiling and learns that she, along with Fu's daughter, are Red agents--and practitioners of arcane Taoist sexual rites. (Later, Bet samples Meiling's lore: ""[she] inserted his Positive Peak deep into her Cinnabar Cleft."") Events, many implausible, pile up as Barnett knots together his plot strands: Meiling and Meilu (who dies violently) are revealed as twins; the instigator of the burning and the courtesan killer are the same man, a wild card to whom no proper clues point; and when Bet identifies the priest's murder as a political chess move between two rival Communist factions, Mae himself turns up to adjudicate, in a variation on the classic drawing-room denouement. Beneath the exotica, a conventional, bumpily plotted novel with surface-deep-only characters; a Chinese Gorky Park this isn't. But Barnett's depiction of old China and its inhabitants is the real star here--and it shines, making this an unusual, satisfying entertainment.