About Me

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Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada
I am a lawyer in Melfort, Saskatchewan, Canada who enjoys reading, especially mysteries. Since 2000 I have been writing personal book reviews. This blog includes my reviews, information on and interviews with authors and descriptions of mystery bookstores I have visited. I strive to review all Saskatchewan mysteries. Other Canadian mysteries are listed under the Rest of Canada. As a lawyer I am always interested in legal mysteries. I have a separate page for legal mysteries. Occasionally my reviews of legal mysteries comment on the legal reality of the mystery. You can follow the progression of my favourite authors with up to 15 reviews. Each year I select my favourites in "Bill's Best of ----". As well as current reviews I am posting reviews from 2000 to 2011. Below my most recent couple of posts are the posts of Saskatchewan mysteries I have reviewed alphabetically by author. If you only want a sentence or two description of the book and my recommendation when deciding whether to read the book look at the bold portion of the review. If you would like to email me the link to my email is on the profile page.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Firemaker by Peter May

Firemaker by Peter May (1999) - A nanny speaks to the police of a man ablaze in a Bejing park:

“He was still alive. Reaching out
to me, like he was asking for

Detective Li Yan, on his first day as Deputy Section Chief, investigates the deaths of the fire victim, a drug dealer and an intinerant worker.

Just arrived in Bejing is Dr. Margaret Campbell, a forensic pathologist, from Chicago who is trying to escape from personal tragedy. When authorities discover she is an expert in burn victims she is called upon to conduct the autopsy of the man from the park. She swiftly determines it is murder.

The other deaths were clearly murders. The drug dealer was stabbed while the worker’s neck was manually snapped.

Li and Campbell, strong willed and independent personalities, clash.

Li reflects on American and Chinese criminal investigations:

It was one of the fundamental differences, Li thought, between the American approach and the Chinese approach. The Americans placed more stress on motive, The Chinese, preferred to build the evidence, piece by tiny piece, until the accumulation of it was overwhelmingly conclusive. The “why” was not the key to the answer but the answer itself. Perhaps by working together they could combine the virtures of both systems.

Li embarks on a traditional Chinese criminal investigation with extensive interviews and careful reviews of physical evidence but May adds a discordant scene where the “traditional” American threat of physical violence is used to extort information.

Campbell must adjust to China’s distinctly different approach on rights in a criminal investigation:

“According to Chinese law a defendant has the right to defend himself. But he also has a duty to co-operate with the police and the court in uncovering the truth about his case. You might think that the right to defend himself would lead automatically to a right to silence under interrogation, to protect himself, like Americans take the Fifth. Only he also has a duty - to the state, to society - to answer all questions faithfully and truthfully, even if that incriminates him …. The real problem with China is that while the defendant’s rights are pretty well protected in the constitution, they’re often neglected, or even abused, in practice. But there’s a lot of bright people in this country working hard to change that. And not without success. Things are improving.”

Campbell’s knowledge lets her determine the identity of the burned man. Chao Heng is a retired high level bureaucrat in China’s Department of Agriculture who worked on the genetic modification of rice to create a “super rice” that has dramatically increased Chinese food production.

Li and Campbell continue a prickly professional relationship with Li flip flopping over her participation and Campbell resentfully deciding to leave if she is not wanted.

Personally they gradually grow closer.

While Li would prefer his accustomed traditional approach he is forced to consider “why” with regard to the murders because a Marlboro cigarette end is found at each murder site. There is no obvious connection.

To discover the “why” Li and Campbell combine reflection on the evidence gathered with reviewing the evidence and the crime scenes.

As they probe they realize powerful forces have acted. I was caught up in the drama of a credible conspiracy. 

Li and Campbell flee. It has been awhile since I read of an excellent escape.

The pace of the plot quickened until I was anxious to turn the page to see the resolution. I was reminded of the great early novels of Robert Ludlum creating believable conspiracies that captured the reader.

Firemaker, is the first in May’s China Thriller series.


  1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this, Bill. I think Peter May is one of the very talented crime writers out there right now, with more than one well-written series, and standalones, too. And I've found he's quite good at conveying a sense of place and culture.

  2. Margot: Thanks for the comment. He has a real understanding of where he sets his novels. In a foreword to The Firemaker he discusses the years he spent in China.

  3. I am glad you liked this novel. I read it in pre-blogging days and I enjoyed it enough to get more books in the series but I have not read them yet. I need to dig them out sometime.

    1. TracyK: Thanks for the comment. I am well into the second in the series and will shortly have a review.

  4. I have read other books by Peter May, but had no idea he had written books set in China - they passed me by. Sounds most tempting.

    1. Moira: Thanks for the comment. He spent a lot of time in China and this series reflects the depth of his knowledge. It is a strong series.