I've enjoyed Catherine Sampson's three previous novels very much, but with THE SLAUGHTER PAVILION she truly comes into her own. The main character from the first three books, Robin Ballantyne, appears only briefly. Here, the setting is China and the main emphasis is on the private detective Song, and to a lesser extent his colleague Wolf and his new employee Blue, three characters who all appeared in the previous book, THE POOL OF UNEASE.
Song, Wolf and Blue are all struggling with their individuality. They aren't conformists, yet are living in a highly repressive society in which information is censored, anyone could be a party spy, every mobile phone call could be traced, and the slightest deviation from the norm could result in years in a re-education facility or worse. At the same time, most of China's population is impoverished and people's human rights are non-existent. An example used here is that much of Beijing is being razed in order to build offices and tower blocks. None of the inhabitants and local business people have any redress, but simply have to clear out of their rooms when they hear the bulldozers approach, taking with them what possessions they can. One course that is open to people who suffer an injustice is that they are allowed to write petitions. If enough people sign, the petition is seen by the police and some investigation is supposed to follow.
THE SLAUGHTER PAVILION opens with Song refusing to take on the case of a peasant who tries to hire him to investigate why his petition, about the death of his young daughter, has been ignored by the authorities. Terrified at having his business closed down, Song refuses to help – and tragedy rapidly ensues. In an attempt to avoid being interrogated by the police as a witness, Song finds himself investigating the case further, as his ex-father-in-law, the awful Chief Chen Delai, seems inescapably to be involved. Soon Song is sought out, and then accompanied on his quest, by an attractive human-rights lawyer, Jin Dao, a development that increases Song's terror at being discovered by the authorities as well as causing him massive internal conflict because of his attraction to Jin.
This book is confident and fast-paced: as well as Song's investigation there are several parallel stories being told. One of these is the tale of two young peasant sisters, a tender, yet menacing, narrative. Blue and Wolf also feature: Wolf takes a back seat in this book but it is his apparently callous attitude to Blue that causes her to discover a crucial piece of evidence on the Internet that eventually allows Song to see where a solution must lie. In addition, Blue visits England as she has been invited to Robin's wedding, and while there sets the final steps in motion that provide us, and later Song, with the full picture.
One of the many pleasures of this excellent novel is the confidence with which China is presented, both from the point of view of the relatively sophisticated urban Song and Blue, and also from the view of the peasants, who have little access to the technology and knowledge of the modern age. The book is infused with local detail that can come only from someone who truly knows a country: the author has been Beijing correspondent for the Times and now lives in China; she makes good use of her knowledge of the country itself and of how its deprived people find and share information under the radar of officialdom.
The book is neither a travelogue nor a political tract. It is a very good page-turner of a novel, with a great plot, convincing locales and superb characters. One could want nothing more – except the next in the series.