Brian Klingborg’s Thief of Souls follows Inspector Lu Fei as he hunts a serial killer operating around a tiny town in northeast China. In this essay, Klingborg explores his enduring fascination with China and the unique combination of factors that make it a perfect setting for a mystery.
I first visited China in the summer of 1987 and took a three-week odyssey by sleeper train from Guangzhou to Nanjing, Shanghai, Xian—home of the famous terra-cotta warriors—and finally to Beijing.
Despite economic reforms launched in 1978, the country seemed caught in a time warp during that hot, humid summer. Most businesses remained state-owned, and the nefarious “iron rice bowl” system was in full effect—many workers enjoyed job security, but low wages and a lack of merit pay led to poor motivation.
Like the country itself, Shanghai was frozen in time. Grandiose European buildings dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries lined the Bund but were mostly derelict. Beijing was a city of expansive highways, nearly devoid of vehicles. The pickings were slim in food aisles. If you wanted chocolate or other import items, you had to go to a “Friendship Store”—where no Chinese citizens were allowed to shop—and pay with “foreign exchange certificates.” Tiananmen Square was vast and empty, and viewing Mao’s corpse required only a short wait in line.
My, how times have changed . . .
Shanghai is now a city of towering skyscrapers and blinding lights. Private industry is booming, and upward mobility is the name of the game. Foreign goods are widely available, and judging from the Louis Vuitton handbags and designer clothes in evidence, people have the money to pay for them. Beijing’s roads are clogged with stop-and-go traffic, much of it consisting of imported luxury cars. And you can forget about visiting Mao—the line currently stretches for what seems like the entire length of the Great Wall.
These dazzling changes signify a rapid period of Chinese growth, a trend that, if it continues, may see the nation become the world’s foremost political, economic and military power. For some, this is a frightening prospect.
A rising China is the setting of my new novel, Thief of Souls, in which a Chinese police officer investigates a bizarre murder in a small northern town and runs afoul of local Communist Party bosses, corrupt business interests and a truly deranged murderer.
In writing Thief of Souls, I had several goals in mind. I hoped to create a compelling mystery that did justice to a unique culture and people that many westerners are only familiar with through negative references. I wanted to explore the pressures and paradoxes Chinese citizens face as their society and way of life undergo radical transformation. And last but not least, I figured it was high time I leveraged the 30-plus years I spent studying Chinese history and religion into something productive!
I drew on my own academic background and the four years I spent living in Taiwan, three of those working locally for a Chinese company, as well as many later years of professional and personal travels to the region. I also conducted scads of research. And I was very aware that, as someone who is not Chinese, I had a solemn responsibility to base my story on a factual framework and to feature characters of flesh and blood rather than cardboard cutouts.
I hope readers enjoy the mystery and suspense of Thief of Souls but also see a kindred spirit in the daily challenges faced by many Chinese citizens—and their aspirations for a better future.
After all, as the old saying goes: “Within the four seas, we are all one family.”
Author photo by Lanchi Venator