Following on from her excellent first two novels, FALLING OFF AIR and OUT OF MIND, Catherine Sampson provides a change of theme for TV journalist Robin Ballantyne. After the death of her partner and the father of her twins, and starting a relationship with Finney, the detective investigating the case, Robin might have thought life would calm down a bit. She's wrong.
At the start of THE POOL OF UNEASE, Robin is sent to Beijing where Derek Sumner, an executive from a Scottish steel mill, has been murdered. The mill is about to be sold to a Chinese millionaire businessman called Nelson Li, and it was after Sumner made some indiscreet comments about the operation being moved from Scotland that his body was found.
As well as coping with the long flight and the separation from her young children, Robin is immediately thrown into the chaos of this huge Chinese city. She has hired an interpreter called Blue, but they have an edgy relationship: everywhere she goes, Robin encounters mistrust among a population ground-down by government dictates and poverty. She does her best to investigate Sumner's death, but is hampered by her lack of journalist's visa, the unwillingness of any of the other westerners involved to speak to her, and her incomprehension of the language.
Another story is running in parallel, that of Song, an ex-policeman who is struggling to make a living as a private detective. Song has left the police force because he couldn't stand his corrupt boss, Detective Chen, but he's in a mess because Chen is also the father of Song's wife Lina, whom Song has left, together with their son. Chen's persecution makes it virtually impossible for Song to operate, so he is reduced to lurking outside brothels trying to photograph errant husbands. It is while he is engaged in this activity that he hears a terrible scream in the woods. Racing up the hill to see what is happening, he comes across a dead woman in a fire, as well as a terrified young boy. Before he can react, Song hears shouts – and afraid of being accused of the crime, he grabs the boy and runs away, eventually ending up at the office of his partner Wolf, a young and rather eccentric lawyer with silver hair and a tattoo on his forehead.
Robin's and Song's separate investigations take alternate chapters, eventually, as one knows they must, merging into a single thread, before separating again. Although the two strong plot themes are satisfyingly strong, this book's power comes from its atmospheric and sympathetic portrayal of modern China – not just Beijing but the surrounding countryside and even Shanghai. Catherine Sampson now lives in Beijing, and her first-hand experience is woven into this very vivid account of a country in the midst of upheaval. She conveys so well what it must be like to live there if one is not one of the favoured Communist party few; how people struggle to survive in a place where wages are virtually non-existent, families live several to a room and share bathroom facilities with the rest of the street; and where nobody is sure who is watching them. This paranoia infects both Robin's and Song's efforts to uncover the truth of the nightmare situations in which they both find themselves, so that when they finally meet, although they can't communicate in words, they understand each other perfectly.
I loved this book, and hope very much to read more in future about Song, Wolf and Blue – such vivid and strong characters in their far-away world.