The Fourth Sacrifice by Peter May (2000) - Dr. Margaret Campbell, is upset. It is a few months after she raised the alarm on “super-rice” in The Firemaker. Calamity has been averted but Bejing detective Li Yan has not kept in contact with her. Having become lovers she is hurt and has decided to return to America.
Li is occupied by an investigation into Bejing’s first serial killer. In four weeks four men have been beheaded. Personally, Li has been ordered not to contact Campbell.
When the 4th victim Yuan Tao turns out to be an American citizen the U.S. embassy asks Campbell to do the autopsy. To the shock of everyone she determines the 4th killing was committed by a different killer. Where the earlier victims were decapitated by a right handed murderer the last was slain by someone who is left handed.
The murder weapon, a bronze sword, is distinctive in that bronze swords have not been used for centuries. Why would a bronze sword or swords be used?
While the murder weapon looks back hundreds of years there are modern political issues. Yuan Tao was born in China and left for America shortly before the Cultural Revolution. Right wing American zealots suspect he was killed for leaving China 30 years earlier and adopting America.
Campbell stays to participate in the investigation.
When Li confirms all 4 victims were schoolmates the question of whether there were 2 killers is fascinating.
The investigation takes Li back to the Cultural Revolution when life in China was turned into chaos and violence with the Red Guards. Yet those events were decades ago.
Why would Yuan Tao, a respected academic in America, give up his position to work in the visa section of the American embassy? What connects him to the schoolmates who stayed in China?
Li carefully examines the threads of evidence. His advances come from reflecting on that evidence.
Margaret considers the evidence in broader terms and has flashes of insight.
While their emotions for each other remain tangled their personal lives move on separately.
Adding spice to Margaret’s life is Michael Zimmerman, a famous archaeologist, who is in China to film a documentary. He is very interested in Margaret. Her trip to see the terracotta warriors made me want to experience them.
The romantic relationships did become a bit of a soap opera.
There is a powerful examination of the personal implications of China’s One-Child Policy in Li’s immediate family and the desire for a son. I found wrenching, almost incomprehensible as a father and grandfather, what individuals would do to have a son.
The combination of archaeology, life in swiftly changing Bejing, an intriguing quartet of murders and complex personal relationships made The Fourth Sacrifice an excellent book.
May, Peter - (2003) - Snakehead; (2014) - The Blackhouse; (2014) - The Lewis Man; (2015) - The Chessmen; Bookmark Inspiration for the Outer Hebrides; (2020) - Firemaker