The Firemaker by Peter May

September 23, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Firemaker by Peter May (1999) French title : Meurtres à Pékin. Translated by Ariane Bataille.

MayThe Firemaker our Book Club read for August, so yes, I might be a little late with the billet. It’s going to be a quick one as well because I have a rather long list of upcoming billets and frankly, The Firemaker is not a book that pushes me to write a long, deep or even gushing billet. It’s honest Beach and Public Transport reading but nothing more.

It’s the first instalment of Peter May’s series in China. Dr Margaret Campbell is a medical examiner in Chicago and she arrives in Beijing to give lectures about her job to Chinese students. Li Yan has just been promoted as Deputy Section Chief in the Beijing police department. He accidentally meets Margaret on his way to his job interview and they start on the wrong footing.

The same day, three bodies are found dead in three different places of the city. The only common point between the three is a cigarette butt near the corpses.

Follows an investigation to discover who’s guilty of these murders. Margaret and Li are obliged to work together. She makes mistake after mistake in her interactions with Chinese people. Margaret and Li are madly attracted to each other but cannot really act on it. They get scientific results of sample analysis in record time, the cells don’t even have the time to multiply that they already have the report. Such performance sounds rather unrealistic.

It’s basically an American NCIS based in Beijing. It’s an easy read and I read it till the end but it’s rather stereotyped. The scientist imposed to the cop as a partner. A pair forced to work together that ends up falling in lust and then in love. Pointing out cultural differences. An American woman who doesn’t take time to read anything about the country she’s going to and offends everyone with her ignorance. A woman who flew to China to avoid her painful past. A man whose family has been hurt by the Cultural Revolution. Cardboard descriptions of Beijing. Some cultural nail polish to spice it up. And poof, 500 pages.

All in all, nothing to write home about. It could have been a lot better because the synopsis is a truly great idea. The problem is that it lacks finesse in characterization but it’s still a decent Beach & Public Transport book.

There’s a recent review in French by Bookmaniac here

  1. September 24, 2016 at 12:33 am

    I have a couple of Peter May novels on my kindle yet to read. Now I won’t rush…


    • September 24, 2016 at 4:06 pm

      Honestly, forget about this one. I have a better tolerance than you for romance and in this one I found the love stuff too much. Perhaps the subsequent volumes of the series are better, I can’t tell.

      Liked by 1 person

      • September 24, 2016 at 4:28 pm



        • September 24, 2016 at 4:32 pm



          • September 24, 2016 at 5:12 pm

            It’s dodgy to mix crime and romance.


            • September 25, 2016 at 7:11 am

              Yes. That’s a pitfall Elizabeth George avoided with her Linley/Havers series.

              Liked by 1 person

              • September 25, 2016 at 4:35 pm

                I’ve been trying to think of a book that does blend the two successfully.


              • September 25, 2016 at 8:48 pm

                Agatha Christie’s books with the Beresfords. (and their wonderful film adaptation by Pascal Thomas)

                Liked by 1 person

  2. September 24, 2016 at 5:45 am

    I like the ‘Beach & Public Transport book’, rather fun. It has been written in 1999 and maybe the historical context could explain the ‘caricatural’ of the Chinese culture.
    The Lewis trilogy from Peter May was good from my point of view.
    Yes , you may read Xiaolong Qiu. Start with Death of a Red Heroine,

    Liked by 1 person

    • September 24, 2016 at 9:01 am

      Thank you so much for posting the name of Xiaolong Qiu. I found one of his books by accident in the library and enjoyed it but lost the author name and every time I asked people about a Chinese author writing detective stories I got a blank face. Even my Chinese colleagues didn’t come up with an answer.


      • September 24, 2016 at 4:15 pm

        Saved by the blogs! Hurrah for the blogging community, you can happily continue reading Xialong Qiu’s series.

        Liked by 1 person

    • September 24, 2016 at 4:13 pm

      I have this Beach & Public Transport books category to help reader find books for leasure and that don’t require too much concentration.

      I’m always wary of books set in a country which isn’t the author’s country or a place he has lived. China has such a complex culture that writing a novel set there is a slippery slope.

      I’ll get Death of a Read Heroine in English. I find it fascinating when Chinese natives switch to French or English to write books. Again, the structure of these languages is very far from their native language and to be able to write literature in such a different language is amazing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. September 24, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    I always get this guy mixed up with another Peter, Peter James, the author of a very successful series of crime fiction novels featuring a Sussex-based detective DS Roy Grace. The first few in the series were pretty good although I’ve sort of fallen out the habit of reading them now..


    • September 24, 2016 at 4:15 pm

      Perhaps Peter James is a better writer than Peter May.
      Bookmaniac seems to say his other books are better than this one.


  4. September 24, 2016 at 10:21 pm

    I rather like Peter May’s novels set on the Scottish island of Lewis, but I read this more as a curiosity (and because I’m fascinated by China) and yes, it’s his first novel and it shows. Too much exposition, too much back story etc.


    • September 25, 2016 at 7:12 am

      Perhaps he’s more at ease with writing about Scotland than about China.
      Did you read the other volumes of his Chinese series?


      • September 25, 2016 at 11:24 am

        No, not yet, but I gather they get better as he goes on.


        • September 29, 2016 at 8:41 pm

          Good to know.


  5. October 11, 2016 at 3:08 pm

    I think I’ve got one of his Lewis novels, which I hope works better than this though I can see it might given his likely greater familiarity. It seems a stretch that the Chinese police would either need or agree to foreign help in this way.

    Overall though it sounds like it might make a fun tv show one-day, if a rather formulaic one. I wouldn’t bother reading it.

    There’s a review of Death of a Red Heroine at mine by the way if you haven’t seen it. I enjoyed it, but I never felt the need to read on in the series.


    • October 11, 2016 at 8:33 pm

      I remembered reading a review about a crime fiction novel in China on your blog. I looked for a Peter May review but it was Death of a Red Heroine.


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