During a major groundbreaking for the New York-Shanghai Bank in Shanghai, the struts on a projecting platform give way to plunge an American CEO into a pit full of corpses. This is a great opening not only because it is a well written, tense beginning, but also because it gives the reader the same warm visceral feeling that we got when the dinosaur ate the lawyer in Jurassic Park. For China, however, it’s a PR nightmare, and for Deputy Section Chief Li Yan, it’s the proverbial redball that he catches in Beijing. Sent to work with his Shanghai counter-part, Deputy Section Chief Nien Mei-Ling, Li is instructed to establish whether the Shanghai killings were in relation to similar murder in Beijing. With the bodies in such a state of decomposition, Li wants the American pathologist, Margaret Campbell, to work with the Chinese pathologists in determining the time and cause of death. Based on the pathology reports, it appears that the corpses were subjected to live autopsies. It would be easy enough to leave the dead women anonymous and have his detectives stalk the killer, but May does a beautiful job of humanizing the victims through Li and Mei-Ling’s investigation.
I can’t tell more without giving away a rather intriguing ending, but I will say that as a thriller, this book works beautifully; the pacing is good and the story moves along at an interesting clip. I loved the modern depictions of China; May’s writing style brings the cities of Shanghai and Beijing to life with all their beauty and grit. Li and Mei-Ling are believable characters, and the sexual tension between these two vibrates all the way through the novel, but I wasn’t as enamored with love triangle sub-plot between Li, Mei-Ling, and Margaret. Margaret comes across as a petty, childish, alcoholic, who disdains everything Chinese (except Li, of course). Where Li and Mei-Ling are multidimensional characters, Margaret is the quintessential arrogant American, and I never quite felt the same tension or even affection between Li and Margaret that I felt between Li and Mei-Ling. May ties everything together neatly in the end, and while I can’t call it the most captivating thriller I’ve ever read, The Killing Room was still a good read.