The Man With No Face

Happy New Year! And I’m happy to announce the publication of The Man With No Face.  This book was originally written and published in 1981, it’s a fast-moving political thriller is set in 1979 but is contemporary in its themes, which is why my editor suggested it was time for a new edition.

Set on the eve of a UK general election, the topic on everyone’s lips is Britain’s membership of the European Union.  Political conspiracies, freedom of the press, corruption and assassinations, all set in the pre-internet era, when nobody had mobile phones and information was slower to travel and easier to conceal.

The Man With No Face



Brussels, 1979. Jaded Edinburgh journalist Neil Bannerman arrives in the capital of European politics intent on digging up dirt. Yet it is danger he discovers, when two British men are found murdered.


One victim is a journalist, the other a Cabinet Minister: the double-assassination witnessed by the former’s autistic daughter. This girl recalls every detail about her father’s killer – except for one.


With Brussels rocked by the tragedy, Bannerman is compelled to follow his instincts. He is now fighting to expose a murderous conspiracy, protect a helpless child, and unmask a remorseless killer.

Buy now with
from the Book Depository

Meet me on the launch tour for “The Man With No Face”

Monday 14th January – Glasgow

6.30pm – Book Talk
Venue: Mitchell Library, North Street, Glasgow G3 7DN


Tuesday 15th January – Perth

7pm – Book Talk
St John’s Kirk, St John’s Place, Perth PH1 5SZ


Wednesday 16th January – Inverness

6.30pm – Book Talk
Eden Court Theatre, Inverness


Thursday 17th January – Edinburgh

6.30pm – Book Talk
Edinburgh Central Library, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh


Friday 18th January – Edinburgh

12 noon – Signing
WH Smiths, Unit 14, 33 Gyle Avenue, EH12 9JT

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Spring 2018 news

I’ll Keep You Safe reached #2 in the UK hardback charts and has just been published in the USA and Canada.

The good news is that publication dates are bringing North America closer with the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

The hard cover edition of I’ll Keep You Safe came out last week in the USA and Canada, so readers in North America are no longer having to wait a whole year for the latest book.  It is hoped that in the future, the publication dates of the English language editions will be simultaneous worldwide.

The paperback edition of I’ll Keep You Safe will be published in the UK  in July.


Click here to order I’ll Keep You Safe from The Book Depository with free worldwide delivery

The Lewis Trilogy takes Norway by storm

This week the final book in the Lewis Trilogy hits the streets of Norway and the expectations are high that it will follow the success of the first two books.  The Norwegians are really taking the trilogy to their hearts.

The Norwegian editions of The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man have spent months in the best seller lists and are currently still at #8 and #9 in the hard cover chart, with The Blackhouse also showing at #12 in the paperback chart after publication last September!

In addition, The Blackhouse has just been shortlisted as one of the top 5 translated crime novels in Norway for 2017.

This is all great news for the tiny publishing house Goliat Forlag who put so much effort  and enthusiasm into the publication.

Long live small independent publishing houses!


Tiger Garte, Mark Jørgensen and Thea Dahlgren of Goliat Forlag publishers celebrating the publication of the final book in the Lewis Trilogy.

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Nae Pasaran

A few months ago I came across a Kickstarter project called Nae Pasaran.  I was intrigued to read that a Chilean documentary-maker working in Scotland had completed filming the story of Rolls Royce workers at East Kilbride, near Glasgow, who in the 1970s had blocked the servicing of jet engines from the planes of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Pinochet who, with US connivance, had overthrown the democratically elected socialist régime of Chile in 1973, was cracking down ruthlessly on the population of his country.  He interned as many as 80,000 people, torturing thousands more, and executed somewhere between 1200 and 3200.  (There is a wonderful Jack Lemon film set during this time, called “Missing”).   He also bombed civilians in Santiago.

It was this persecution that prompted the workers at East Kilbride to boycott the servicing of the Chilean jet engines, thereby grounding many airforce planes, and undoubtedly saving civilian lives.

The engines were put under wraps and sat untouched in the works yard for several years until one day they mysteriously disappeared.

The story so intrigued Chilean filmmaker, Felipe Bustos Sierra, that he raised the money to make a documentary about it, which he called “Nae Pasaran” – a kind of Scottish version of the Spanish for “thou shalt not pass”.  Unfortunately, he ran out of money to pay for the post-production editing of film and sound, and launched a Kickstarter project to raise the funds to finish it.

Since I was very much around in the seventies when this was all happening, working as a journalist in Glasgow, I felt that it was a project worth a donation.  I, along with others, provided the cash that has enabled Felipe to bring the project to a conclusion.  And the Glasgow Film Festival has now invited “Nae Pasaran” for a screening at its closing night gala on March 4th, when it will have it’s world première.

Sadly, I wont be able to go, but have been promised a DVD as compensation.

And one of those Rolls Royce workers, Stuart Barrie, renowned over the years for his poetry, has written a poem in my honour, which I found very touching.  Here it is:

‘Nae Pasaran’ was in a knot 

Needing finance booster shot 

When from mists Peter walked out 

Planted seeds that soon would sprout 

No story of Scot’s engineers ! 

No story of the Chilean tears ! 

No story of the engines ‘blacking’ ! 

Without your coins, without your backing 

This poem is part, of the barter 

For your generous Kickstarter 

donation given with fine heart 

Enjoy these verses a la carte 


Born Glasgow nineteen fifty-one 

Keelys were pale from lack of sun 

Lead in water pipes way back then 

Made keely’s depressed now and again 

But Peter was fine, that was until 

He got ground down in the ‘Savings’ mill 

Lines of figures, endless numbers 

Sinking fast in toxic slumbers 

So being pure gallus, being a chancer 

(He wisnie dolly, he had an answer) 

“If I stay here, I’ll melt down” 

So Peter did a runner to London town 

Then back to Glasgow, back he came 

Trainee Car Salesman, (job without shame) 

Left in a year, then did a course 

That fed his heart and vital force 

To work in Paisley to report 

On Buddie’s lives, their days in court 

So up the ladder, on his bike 

Over to the Scotsman, that was a hike 

Worked for Roy then Ken the son 

Building his craft for the long end run 

Like tousled hair, looking for a comb 

Glasgow called its own son home 

As Evening Times, ‘Background Writer’ 

Honed his skills, pulled it tighter

Then off to the ‘telly’, to use his theories 

Purvey his art in scripts and series 

Words vocation, a spate in flood 

Story and synopsis ran in his blood 

Standard, Squadron, High Road, Machair 

Literary dervish, apprentice Voltaire 

At the ripe old age of forty five 

From chrysalis came a butterfly 

Peter May … word gourmet 

Left the telly … flew away 

His first love once again embraced 

His appetite was most unchaste 

His trade now learned, his art refined 

Li Yan forensic mastermind 

appeared from out of Peter’s head 

To solve the riddles of the dead 

Now west to France for cold case files 

Peter and Enzo, Scottish exiles 

Produced Cast Iron, Blowback, Freeze Frame 

Half of half dozen that brought French Fame 

Next north to Lewis where spells are cast 

Dark streams flow from Fin Mac’s past 

Ah Pete my man ! Heyoka empaths ! 

Plumbing the soul in warm bloodbaths 

Now in Saint-Céré you domicile 

in some style, a Francophile 

But nae good curries for some whiles 

(The price that’s paid by Scotch eggs isles) 

Hope you live long, hope you live well 

Crack heart’s code for citadel 

Now in autumn of your life 

Within the grasp of freedom’s knife 

Cooked all your meals, had your fill 

Last page, last words, behold, be still.

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Farewell Joe

It is with great sadness that I write, belatedly, in tribute to my friend and adviser on all things scientific, Professor Joe Cummins, who died just over two years ago after a lengthy battle with cancer.

I didn’t know of his death for over a year.  Joe had worked and lived in London, Ontario, in Canada, for 23 years before retiring in 1996 from the University of Western Ontario to become Professor Emeritus in Genetics.  I had not been in touch with him since completing my research for the book “Coffin Road”, about bees and neonicotinoids – a book inspired by Joe’s relentless search for answers to the mystery of the world’s disappearing bees.  He had, at that time, been on dialysis, but I’d had no idea that death was so close.

My relationship with Joe spanned nearly twenty years, during which time he was my patient and tireless adviser on many books.  But in all that time I never had the honour of meeting him in person. Our relationship was conducted entirely by email – and I have hundreds of our exchanges filed away in my mailer.

It was shortly after his retirement that I first encountered him online, when I was looking for an expert to advise me on genetics for my book, “The Firemaker”, the first in a series of thrillers set in China.  He took me step-by-step through the process of genetically engineering foodstuffs – a highly complex scientific procedure not at all easy for the layman to understand.

My job was to grasp the basic principles, and makes them easily understood by a popular readership.  Joe walked me through the complexities, enabling me to do just that.  With great forbearance he answered all my silly questions, and spelled out for me with great clarity exactly how genetic modification works.

In doing so he conveyed to me the horrors of this process, and all the dangers that were, and are, being ignored by the biotech giants who are forcing their technologies upon us in relentless pursuit of profit, and with scant regard for the dangers to the environment and the human race.  This very much shaped the story I told in my book.

Joe went on to advise me on further books in the China series, as well as in the Enzo Files series, and finally on “Coffin Road”.

Joe Cummins was hugely qualified, being awarded a PhD in cell biology at the University of Wisconsin in 1962, before going on to do post doctoral research at the University of Edinburgh, the Universities of Palermo and Catania in Italy, the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and the Macardle Laboratory for Cancer Research back in Wisconsin.

His interest focused more and more on the environment and in 1999 he joined the Institute of Science in Society, writing papers attacking biotech companies and the failure of bureaucrats to properly regulate them.  During fifteen years he became a thorn in the side of US regulatory bodies governing agriculture, the environment, and food and drugs.  To that end he wrote more than 200 scientific and popular articles.

In this role he was one of a team from the Institute which addressed the European Parliament on the subject of a GM-free Europe.  He concluded with three points which he believed vital to the survival of humanity: the elimination of neonicotinoid pesticides, the eradication of Bt crops – and the need to replace all bureaucrats who turn a blind eye to the destruction of nature in favour of the biotech and agrochemical industry!

Joe was a veritable force of nature, who fought for all things natural.  He was a kind, supremely generous man, with a great sense of humour, and an endless patience for this annoying writer.

I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.

RIP Joe.

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I’ll Keep You Safe – new book coming January 2018

Latest Book and UK Launch Tour

an explosive return to the Hebrides with the brand new thriller….

I’ll Keep You Safe



Niamh and Ruairidh Macfarlane co-own the Hebridean company Ranish Tweed. On a business trip to Paris to promote their luxury brand, Niamh learns that Ruairidh is having an affair, and then looks on as he and his lover are killed by a car bomb. She returns home to Lewis, bereft.


Niamh begins to look back on her life with Ruairidh, desperate to identify anyone who may have held a grudge against him. The French police, meanwhile, have ruled out terrorism, and ruled in murder – and sent Detective Sylvie Braque to shadow their prime suspect: Niamh.


As one woman works back through her memories, and the other moves forward with her investigation, the two draw ever closer to a deadly enemy with their own, murderous, designs.




UK TOUR – January 2018

Saturday 13th January – Isle of Lewis

Event at Lews Castle, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
Tel for Ticket: 01625 416 457
Ticket email:
Time: 6.30pm
Venue: Lews Castle
Address:  Castle Grounds, Stornoway, HS2 0XS
Chairperson: Malcolm Maclean
Ticket price: £10 (including welcome drink)

Monday 15th January – Inverness

Event with Waterstone’s, Inverness
Tel for Tickets: 01463 233500/ 01463 234234
Tickets Website:
Time: 6.30pm
Tel: 01463 233 500
Venue: Eden Court Theatre,
Address: Bishops Road, Inverness, IV3 5SA
Chairperson: Emma Murray
Tickets: £5

Tuesday 16th January – Glasgow

Aye Write Special Event in association with Waterstones & the Mitchell Library

Tickets website:
Time: 6.30pm
Tel for tickets:  0141 353 8000
Venue: Mitchell Library Theatre
Address: North Street, Glasgow, G3 7DN
Chairperson: Shari Low
Ticket Prices: £9

Wednesday 17th January – Perth

Event with Perth Library in association with Waterstone’s Perth
Tickets website:
Tel for tickets:  01738 621 031 or purchase at the box office
Time: 7.30pm
Venue: Perth Theatre,
Address: Mill Street, Perth PH1 5HZ
Chair: Fiona Stalker
Ticket prices: £7

Thursday 18th January – Edinburgh

Event with Waterstone’s Edinburgh
Ticket website:
Tel for tickets: 0131 226 2666
Time: 7pm
Venue: Assembly Roxy
Address: 2 Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh EH8 9SU
Chairperson: Brian Taylor
Ticket Price: £20 (includes a copy of the book) / £8

Tuesday 23rd January – Steyning

Literary Dinner in association with Steyning Bookshop, Sussex
Tel for tickets: 01903 812062
Ticket: £30 (includes book and meal)
Time: 7.30pm
Venue: The Sussex Produce Café
Address: 88 High Street, Steyning BN44 3RD
Chairperson: William Shaw

Wednesday 24th January – Nottingham

Event in association with The Bookcase in Nottingham
Time: 7.30pm
Venue: St Mary’s Church,
Address: Church Lane, Lowdham, Notts, NG14 7BE
Tel for tickets: 0115 966 3219
Ticket Prices: £7 full/ £6 concession/ £5 Festival Friends

Friday 26th January – London Olympia

Event at the France Show, Olympia
Telephone for tickets: 01242 264777
Half price ticket promo code: PMTFS18  (Tickets £6 & booking fee £0.60)
Time: 1.15pm
Chairperson: Guy Wolley
Venue: London Olympia
Address of venue: Hammersmith Rd, London W14 8UX
Ticket Prices:  £12 / £13.20 (with booking fee)

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Events and Book News for Summer and Autumn 2017

Festival Events

I will be speaking at festival events this summer across the UK…

New Books

Cast Iron
– the sixth and final book in the Enzo Files series – will be published in paperback in the UK on 27th July. buy now with FREE delivery worldwide

Cast Iron – the sixth and final book in the Enzo Files series – will be published in hard cover edition in North America on October 3rd.
Coffin Road – the standalone thriller set on the Isle of Harris will be published in paperback in North America on November 7th. click here to pre-order from

Coming in 2018…


I’m currently writing a new novel which will be published early 2018 on both sides of the Atlantic. Details of that will be released soon, but I can reveal that after opening in Paris, the action shifts to the Hebridean island of Lewis.

And finally…

A warm welcome to all my readers in Norway, where “Svarthuset” – The Blackhouse – has been in the best seller lists for the last eight weeks!

Hei til alle mine Norske lesere!

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Flannan Isles Mystery Fundraiser

Those of you who have read my thriller, “Coffin Road”, will know that some of the action takes place on one of a group of tiny islands twenty miles off the west coast of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

They are the Flannan Isles, made famous at the start of the 20th century when three lighthouse keepers stationed on one of the seven islands disappeared without trace or explanation.

The lighthouse stood on the largest of the Flannans, Eilean Mor, and was state of the art at the time.  However, regardless of what might have been happening on the outside, one of the keepers was obliged always to remain within.  Yet when the relief vessel arrived in December 1900, all three were gone.  Despite extensive investigation, their disappearance remains a mystery to this day.

A gift for a writer of crime and mystery books like myself.

But now a new adventure is set to bring the Flannan Isles back into public focus.  One which, hopefully, will have a much happier ending.

Three swimmers from the Western Isles – Ed Smith, Colin S. Macleod and Stuart Baird – are set to undertake a hugely dangerous relay swim from Eilean Mor, across twenty-one miles of treacherous Atlantic Ocean, to Uig on the south-west coast of Lewis.

Why are they undertaking this dangerous journey?  To raise funds for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – the lifeboat charity that rescues an average of 22 people every day from around the shores of the United Kingdom.

And this isn’t the first time these young men have put their lives on the line to save the lives of others.  In August 2015 they swam, in relay, the sixty miles of Atlantic from St. Kilda to Huishinish on the west coast of Harris.  Following the success of that swim they were nominated for the 2016 Scottish Adventure Awards, and picked-up the team prize.

You can read all about that adventure here:

The Flannan Isles swim will take place during the week of 12th to 19th August this year, when it is hoped to raise £1000.  Ed, Colin and Stuart will swim, relay-style, in 45-minute bursts, supported by the crew of the Mv Cuma, and three kayakers.  You can read all about it on a website specially created for the occasion, and can also make your online donation to the event from there:

I am going to kick-off the fundraiser with a personal donation of £100, and would be more than happy if any of my readers felt moved to make a donation themselves, no matter how small.

Good luck, lads!

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2016 – a year of travel and change

After almost twenty years of writing a book every year, 2016 was going to be a year where I wasn’t writing a book – a year off.
I wrote Cast Iron, the final book in the Enzo Macleod series at the end of 2015, but my so-called “year off” began with a period of promotional tours.

Around the World in 85 days

January 2016 was spent doing events in the UK, Spain and France, and in February I undertook a book tour of Australia and New Zealand.  I was overwhelmed by the warmth of the reception and could hardly believe it when I found myself speaking to crowds of two thousand people at events in Adelaide!
There’s a picture of the Adelaide Festival events below (I’m the tiny speck under the blue canopy on the right).


“Coffin Road” sold out in Australia and New Zealand and while waiting for the reprint to arrive, a special shipment of copies had to be sent from the UK to ensure I had enough books for the crowds who came to see me.
From Australia I went to the USA for what was mostly a holiday, though I did manage to catch up with some US fans at an event at Book Carnival in Orange, California.
My American sojourn finally came to an end and we returned home to France, 85 days and 30,000 miles later, but it wasn’t going to be home for long.

House Move

Most of my summer was eaten up with moving house.  The new house is still in France just 15 minutes along the road from our old one, but packing up hundreds of books and clearing 20-odd years of accumulated junk out of the attic and outbuildings was a time-consuming process!
Our new house also had quite a lot of work to be done on it, so it took about three months to make the transition.  The final removal day was in the height of summer with temperatures reaching 40 degrees Centigrade (that’s 104 Fahrenheit)!


Speaking of France, I’ve had a house here for almost 30 years and it has been my permanent home for the last 15 of those.
This year, after a very lengthy process involving language tests, interrogations, and lots and lots of paperwork, my wife and I were granted French nationality.
As French TV reported, I went from being:

“the most French of all Scotsmen,”
to being
“the most Scottish of all Frenchmen”

Anyway, I have recorded a video message if you want to know more about my news, and upcoming books, you can hear it straight from the horse’s mouth…

CAST IRON – out in UK on 12th January


buy now with FREE delivery worldwide
The final adventure in the Enzo Macleod series of books, Cast Iron, can be read as a standalone,
but if you haven’t read the earlier books in the series,
you might like to check them out first.
Click here to read all about Enzo Macleod and his investigations

Cast Iron
will be published in the UK on 12th January 2017 and I will be touring the UK visiting Glasgow Edinburgh, Perth, Norwich, Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester, and London.
Click here for full details of the tour

Good News for my North American readers

Coffin Road was published in October 2016 and I’m pleased to say that during 2017 publication dates will come into alignment with the UK, so that by January 2018 books will be published simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic.
To mark this, a tour of Canada and the USA is planned for early 2018.

Remember, you can join me on Facebook for
personal interaction and all my latest news


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The China Thrillers – new editions

I’m delighted that Quercus’ new imprint riverrun is bringing my series of six China thrillers back into print. The books were first published between 1999 and 2004 and the background to the books charts the extraordinary changes that took place in the country as it opened up to financial partnerships with the west.

My interest in China goes back a long way.  My first visit to the People’s Republic was pure chance.  I was in Hong Kong researching another book which was going to be set in South-East Asia, and my hotel was advertising a one-day trip to Shenzhen in southern China.  I jumped at the chance.

We went by train and by coach, and when we stepped off the bus in Shenzhen itself it was as if we had arrived on another planet.  It was 1983, just a handful of years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and very little had changed since the Communists took power in 1949.  The streets were jammed with bicycles, and everyone still wore their blue Mao suits.  Little old ladies hobbled around on bound feet – a horrible hangover from the days of Imperial China.

The open air markets were like mediaeval street scenes, animals being hacked up on long wooden tables with huge bloodied choppers, bone and fur and flesh everywhere.  Westerners were an irresistible curiosity.  Almost nobody had a television set, and the country had been closed to the outside world for decades.  And if I thought the Chinese were strange, they thought I was even stranger.  There I was, six feet-two, blond hair, ginger beard, a completely alien sight on the streets of China.  And huge crowds of people simply followed me around, staring open-mouthed.

I had an extraordinary sense of having arrived somewhere special, a society preserved as in aspic, and I knew immediately that I wanted to write about it.

I went away and spent the next eight years reading everything I could about the country – its history, its politics, its culture, its cuisine – and watched with the rest of the world as the horrors of Tiananmen Square unravelled before me on my television screen in 1989.

In 1991 I returned, this time in search of a story.  I went to Beijing on a tourist visa, but spent my days and nights exploring the city, talking to people, getting a sense of the place.  Although the new, modern Beijing, under Deng Xiaopeng, was already springing up around me, it still felt hugely alien.  No one spoke English.  Street signs, menus, shop names, maps, everything was written in Chinese characters.  Even the Pinyin romanisation of Chinese was rare.

At that time they had built six ring roads around the city, all of which were eerily empty.  Vast bike lanes flowed with a stream of blue-suited, black-haired humanity, and people still gawped at us everywhere we went.

I befriended a tour guide who was eager to talk to me about the events in Tiananmen Square two years before.  One night he took us to his home at the end of a line of squat, concrete pillboxes in a dark, unlit alley.  He, his wife, their baby, and their babysitter (a peasant girl from the country), lived in one tiny room that contained two beds, a table, a couple of armchairs and a huge television set.  The kitchen was a concrete cubicle barely big enough to turn around in.  An outside toilet was shared with the other residents of the block.

He showed us illicit video taken during the Tiananmen Square protests, and warned us to be careful when we left, because the Street Committee would be watching us.  We rode back through the city well after midnight in an almost empty bus, the only other passengers on it with their eyes fixed on us.

I had thought that my story might revolve around events before, after or during the events of June 1989, and arranged by telephone to visit the offices of CNN in Wangfujing Street to see their archive of unbroadcast footage taken in and around the square.  As it happened, there was a power cut (there were many in Beijing in those days), and when I reached the block where CNN had their offices on the fourth floor, the elevator was not available and I had to walk up.

When I got there the office was empty, except for bureau chief Mike Chinoy and an assistant provided by the Chinese government.  But, of course, without power it was impossible to view the footage, and although I was able to sit and chat to Mike about the events of two years before, I always wondered if it was more than coincidence that prevented me from seeing that video.

I left Beijing empty-handed on that trip, but had learned a great deal, and was even more determined to use China as a setting for my next book.  No one had set a crime thriller in Beijing at that point, just as no one had used Moscow as a setting before Gorky Park.  I was absolutely intent on being the first to do it in China.

In the end, it was another six years before I returned.  But this time I had a story, and a precious introduction to the Chinese police from a man revered by the country’s top cops.

The late Dr. Richard Ward, was an American criminologist who started life as a detective in the New York City police department.  Sickened by the corruption he encountered on a daily basis, he quit to enrol at university and take a degree in criminology.  His rise to acclaim by the international justice community followed quickly.  He became the vice-chancellor of the University of Illinois in Chicago, where he set up an organisation called the Office of International Criminal Justice (OICJ), which brought police departments around the world together in an exchange of methods and information.

Then during the 1990s he spent several years in Shanghai training the top five hundred Chinese police officers in the latest Western policing techniques, and became a legend in the Chinese police.

Dick was my starting point when I began research on what was to become The Firemaker.  I knew what my story would be, and that my two central characters would be a Beijing cop and an American female pathologist.  I had already found technical advisors on pathology, and genetics (the subject of my story).  But getting even a foothold on the steep learning curve that would be required to write authoritatively about the Chinese police was proving next to impossible.  There was simply no information about their structure or methods anywhere, not in libraries or bookstores, nor on an internet then still in its infancy.

A contact put me in touch with Dr. Ward, and I wrote and asked if he would help me.  He suggested we meet.  He was giving a speech in Paris at a conference on international terrorism, and I was in France at the time.  So we met for dinner in the French capital.  I think, during that meal, I must have passed some kind of invisible litmus test, because texts, phone calls and emails then began flooding out of Dick’s office in Chicago to the Chinese capital.  And when I arrived on that first research trip in June 1997, the doors to the Chinese police – normally firmly closed to foreigners – were thrown wide open for me.

I was the first Western writer to get this kind of access, taken under the wing of the Beijing police and admitted into an arcane world of oriental policing, unusual in its embrace of both ancient and traditional Chinese methods, and the very latest international forensic and computing techniques.  During the next seven years, during frequent trips back and forth to China, I was given privileged insights into the workings of police departments in Beijing and Shanghai, allowed access to forensics and pathology facilities in both cities, visited police stations and holding cells, detectives’ offices and interrogation rooms.  I rode in squad cars and ate in police canteens.  And such was the influence of the Chinese police, that if I wanted access to anything not normally available to foreigners, they arranged it.

Interestingly, the branch of the Beijing Ministry of Public Security which hosted me, was the propaganda department.  I quickly discovered that the Chinese interpretation of “propaganda” was a little different from ours in the West.  This department of the Ministry was headed up by a top cop, Wu He Peng, and his job was to make movies and TV cop shows and publish crime fiction.  He would, for example, have made the Chinese equivalent of Taggart, and the Chinese had been publishing the Sherlock Holmes stories and Agatha Christie, among others, all through the twentieth century.

Their philosophy was to show police and their investigations in a good light.  Cops were always the good guys, and the baddies always got caught.  That was the propaganda element of the job.

Wu He Peng had been appointed to this job as reward for catching four notorious criminals who had been robbing museums of priceless artefacts and smuggling them out of the country.  One of the first things he did in his new job was make an eight-hour drama based on that investigation.  He wrote it, produced it, and starred in it as himself, bringing him instant fame throughout China where the average nightly television audience is 500 million.

I also discovered that not only were the Chinese police avid consumers of crime fiction, they also loved to write stories.  So much so that there is a course at the Beijing University of Public Security (the police university) entirely devoted to the history of Western crime fiction, and the propaganda department publishes several monthly magazines featuring short crime stories written by serving police officers.

The very first day of my first research trip I was taken to the University of Public Security.  There I was introduced to the dean of the facility, and to a young serving police officer who had graduated some years before but returned from time to time to lecture to students.  He was unusually tall and his nickname was Clinton (Bill was still then US President) because it rhymed with his name, Lin Tong.  I spent some time chatting to Clinton after our initial meeting, and was hugely impressed by his quiet presence and thoughtful modesty.  He immediately became the model for my Chinese cop, Li Yan.

That first research trip for The Firemaker was also my introduction to the man who would become my great friend and mentor, Dai Yisheng.  He had been a firm friend of Dick Ward, and now became my sherpa during that and all subsequent visits to China.  Mr. Dai was a retired policeman, and one of the most educated and well-read people I have ever met.  A graduate of the American University in Beijing in the late nineteen-forties, he won a post-grad place at Cambridge University in England.  For better or worse, this coincided with the Communist Party’s creation of the People’s Republic in 1949.  He was torn.  Should he stay to help build the new China, or take up his place at Cambridge?  He decided to stay.  But as an intellectual, perhaps considered dangerous to the new regime, he was ordered to become a policeman – in Tibet.

He and his wife were dispatched from their home in Sichuan Province, and told they would have to walk to his new job in Tibet.  It took them three perilous months, traversing rivers in flood, trekking through forests, climbing mountains, before they finally reached his posting.

His life was a turbulent one, thrown in jail during the Cultural Revolution before finally being brought back to Beijing and receiving a high ranking post in an influential police department.  Now retired, however, he had all the time in the world to devote to me and my researches.  He took me places in Beijing that no foreigner had ever been.  From him I gained invaluable insights into Chinese history and culture, the Chinese mentality in both everyday life and police investigations.  I met the most extraordinary array of people inside and outside the justice system, and remember one night being smuggled by taxi from a backstreet restaurant, where I had been questioned by the local police, to the top secret HQ of the Beijing serious crime squad off a dark alleyway buried in the depths of the city.

Usually I met Mr. Dai in the lobby of my hotel, and we would head off for our destination together on bicycles.  But once I visited his home in a seedy, 1950s soviet-style apartment block, where old men played chess in the basement.  And it seemed like an ignominious end to the career and life of such a noble and intelligent man.

Mr. Dai became the inspiration for Li’s Uncle Yifu.

By the time I had returned in ’97 on that first research trip, English had become more widespread.  Many restaurants were now featuring menus in English or Pinyin.  And those ring roads were beginning to start filling up with more than taxis and buses and official vehicles.  The great move away from the bicycle towards private cars was already underway.

And during all my subsequent visits, right up until 2004, I bore witness to the transformation of a country, from the closed, almost mediaeval world of Mao Zedong, to the vision of modern China set in train by Deng Xioaping.  Those changes are reflected in the six books of The China Thrillers, which span probably the greatest and fastest period of change in Chinese history.

As I look back now, I can see the books as bearing witness to that change.  From six empty ring roads to nine ring roads jammed end to end with private and commercial vehicles.  From rivers of bicycles to the merest trickle of cyclists.  From the Mongolian siheyuan courtyards which had been the traditional home of Beijingers for centuries, to high-rise modern apartment blocks.

It was a breathtaking transformation, reflected in each of the books.

The “bread cars” – the ubiquitous yellow vans used as taxis, and referred to frequently in The Firemaker – had been banned by the time I returned in 1999 in an attempt to reduce pollution.

The 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic that year, saw the abolition of the old green military-style police uniform, to a new smart black uniform similar to those found in police forces elsewhere around the world.

In the run-up to the 2004 Beijing Olympics, great swathes of the city were demolished by armies of hammer-wielding workmen, transforming the capital in the space of little more than twelve months into a bustling modern metropolis, with little sign of the history and hutongs that had been so apparent when I first arrived.

Mao suits disappeared to be replaced by the latest Western fashions.  Everyone got mobile phones.  Showrooms sprang up everywhere selling Mercedes and BMW.  The insidious invasion of foreign culture brought McDonalds to Beijing street corners and, God forbid, even a Starbucks in the Forbidden City.  English was becoming the common currency.

I feel privileged to have experienced Beijing and China as it had once been, and to have borne witness to its metamorphosis.  The China Thrillers could hardly have been set at a time of greater change.  And so I view the books now almost as modern historical documents.  They tell us not only about the evolution in the relationship between Deputy Section Chief Li Yan and American pathologist Margaret Campbell, but bear testament to one of the most astonishing cultural transformations in recent history.

An approximate time scale of the series is as follows:

  1. The Firemaker – Summer of 1999
  2. The Fourth Sacrifice – Summer into autumn of 1999
  3. The Killing Room – Winter of 2000
  4. Snakehead – Summer of 2001
  5. The RunnerWinter of 2003
  6. Chinese Whispers – Autumn into winter of 2004

The new edition of the first book in the series, The Firemaker, is out now in paperback. The rest will follow shortly.



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Reflections on Oz

Now that the dust has settled on my three week trip to the Antipodes to promote my latest book, “Coffin Road”, I find myself looking back on my time in Oz with a certain wistful fondness. 

 I suppose most Brits have a fairly stereotypical view of Australia, fostered by the tabloid press, and television soaps like “Neighbours” and “Prisoner Cell Block H”.  I had no real idea what to expect.  All I knew for certain was that it was a helluva long way to go.

But despite the jet lag, my wife and I were blown away.  Here was a country whose economy, tied to the phenomenal success of the Chinese, had prospered over the last eight years, while Europe and America had suffered stifling austerity, lack of investment, rising unemployment, crumbling infrastructure.  What a contrast.  Australia was bright and bold, modern (while still preserving the best of its colonial architecture), and with an energy and optimism that differed starkly from the depression and pessimism infecting the West. 

 I had events at the arts festivals in Perth and Adelaide, travelled to Sydney and Brisbane – with an excursion to New Zealand – and was delighted to find that interest in the arts could hardly be higher.  All my Perth events were played to full houses.  Two thousand people turned up for my events in Adelaide – right across the road from a venue where the Scottish National Theatre was performing the James Plays to full, enthusiastic houses.  Nearly 200 crammed into a library in Brisbane.  People everywhere were incredibly friendly, all infused with what seemed to me like a natural sense of confidence and spirit. 

 Here was a country riding the crest of its own wave of success.  Were I twenty-five years younger, I might have been tempted to move there myself.  I simply loved the energy and enthusiasm that I encountered everywhere we went.  It helped, too, that the sun shone almost incessantly.  We made trips down the Swan River to the old port town of Freemantle; toured the Barossa Valley, tasting the wonderful South Australia wines produced there; wandered the harbour areas of Sydney and ate in restaurants with amazing night views.  

 The one thing that might have cast a small shadow on the trip, was the wheel that came off my suitcase.  When you are dragging 20 kilos around for weeks on end, a functioning suitcase that wheels easily in and out of airports and hotels is a must.  So I was seriously dismayed when, landing at Auckland in New Zealand, to discover that one of the wheels on my case had been totally destroyed in transit.  Not least because I had paid a considerable amount of money for a suitcase which could survive the serious amount of travelling I undertake each year.  It was, however, still under warranty – although the warranty card was at home, back in France. 

 I looked up the makers, Delsey, online, and emailed their Australian office with photographs of the case and the shattered wheel, asking if they might be able to replace the broken part.  They wrote back with the bad news that the wheel in question was no longer being manufactured and so couldn’t be replaced.  But, then, to my amazement, they offered to replace the entire case.  And by the time we booked into our Brisbane hotel, there it was waiting for us.  So kudos to Delsey for pulling out all the stops and rescuing my tour from potential disaster.

Because of the length of travel involved in getting to Australia, I had pretty much decided before going that it would be a one-of trip.  But now I would be happy to brave the flight and go back any time.  Oz, it seems to me, provides the perfect template for a happy, prosperous, optimistic and energetic modern society.  So it’s a big Thumbs Up for that place Down Under.

Peter May, California, March 2016

PS: It was particularly heartening that “Coffin Road” sold out Down Under and had to go to an emergency reprint in time for my arrival, with several thousand copies being shipped out from the UK to fill the immediate gap.

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