The brutal murder of a young woman in a rural village in Northern China sends shockwaves all the way to Beijing—but seemingly only Inspector Lu Fei, living in exile in the small town, is interested in justice for the victim.
Lu Fei is a graduate of China’s top police college but he’s been assigned to a sleepy backwater town in northern China, where almost nothing happens and the theft of a few chickens represents a major crime wave. That is until a young woman is found dead, her organs removed, and joss paper stuffed in her mouth. The CID in Beijing—headed by a rising political star—is on the case but in an increasingly authoritarian China, prosperity and political stability are far more important than solving the murder of an insignificant village girl. As such, the CID head is interested in pinning the crime on the first available suspect rather than wading into uncomfortable truths, leaving Lu Fei on his own.
As Lu digs deeper into the gruesome murder, he finds himself facing old enemies and creating new ones in the form of local Communist Party bosses and corrupt business interests. Despite these rising obstacles, Lu remains determined to find the real killer, especially after he links the murder to other unsolved homicides. But the closer he gets to the heart of the mystery, the more he puts himself and his loved ones in danger.
Thief of Souls is the first novel in the Inspector Lu Fei mysteries. Taking place in northern China, this police procedural follows the local Public Security Bureau deputy director Lu as he tires to solve the murder of a young woman in his rural village.
What I liked most about this book is that I learned quite a bit about China, its government, and daily life in rural villages. Brian Klingborg is a white man writing about Chinese characters in mainland China. I was ultimately not deterred by this because he has both studied and lived in China. For once, I think it was helpful to read something written by an American who has experienced Chinese culture. I found that this perspective allowed Klingborg to write a novel that gave insight to an unfamiliar country and culture in a manner that was straight-forward and relatable for a Western audience. That being said, I still read this with a critical eye understanding that how Klingborg experienced China is not going to be the same as a native citizen.
I thought that Thief of Souls started out a bit slowly, but it later picked up and keep me turning the pages. The writing was something I had to adjust to a bit. It originally felt a bit stilted, like a mediocre translation. But I did not think that this took away from the story. I will also mention that as I initially read it seemed like Klingborg was trying to impress upon readers how extensive his knowledge is of Chinese literature, Eastern religions, and so on. However, I later decided that I was reading into something that was supposed to be character-building and informative.
Inspector Lu reminded me a bit of my favorite fictional detective – Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from Louise Penny’s books. I enjoyed the characters in Thief of Souls and look forward to reading more of them in future novels.
I will mention that I figured out who the murderer was about half way through the novel. However, I did not know the details or motive until that was provided. While I like a surprising final twist, I was still able to enjoy the book.
Overall, I enjoyed reading Thief of Souls and anticipate that this series will improve as Klingborg writes more novels. The characters along with the immersion in Chinese culture and bureaucracy will ensure I pick up the next Inspector Lu Fei novel.
Thief of Souls
May 4, 2021