REVIEW: The Fire Maker by Peter May (China Thrillers #1)

Series: The China Thrillers

Book Number: 1

Read this book for: Chinese thriller, cultural differences, love story, career police officers, high-stakes thriller

Quick Review: Packed with detail about investigations and culture in Beijing, this is a well-paced thriller with an enticingly uncommon backdrop.


LI YAN: A grotesquely burned corpse found in a city park is a troubling mystery for Beijing detective Li Yan. Yan, devoted to his career as a means of restoring the respect his family lost during the Cultural Revolution, needs outside help if he is to break the case.

MARGARET CAMPBELL: The unidentified cadaver in turn provides a welcome distraction for forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell. Campbell, married to her work and having left America and her broken past behind, throws herself into the investigation, and before long uncovers a bizarre anomaly.

THE FIREMAKER: An unlikely partnership develops between Li and Campbell as they follow the resulting lead. A fiery and volatile chemistry ignites: exposing not only their individual demons, but an even greater evil – a conspiracy that threatens their lives, as well as those of millions of others.

THE FIRE MAKER is the first of Peter May’s China Thrillers, recently reissued in gorgeous paperback by Quercus Books. This book was first published in 1999, but its story has held up and the book remains just as interesting a read today as when it was first published.

The China Thrillers series follows detective Li Yan and American pathologist on exchange Dr. Margaret Campbell. It serves to introduce Yan and Campbell and the beginning of their relationship, which continues through an additional 5 novels. It feels more polished than some of May’s other novel series, and is almost as good as some of his standalone or trilogy efforts.

This novel is set in a China with limited exposure to the world outside the country. May has gone to considerable effort to capture the sights, sounds and feel of living in the country, from those in official posts to those just living their day-to-day lives, and some of the routines of the inhabitants of Beijing, including the preference for bicycles and the traffic, and the nightlife and its weather dependence. May spends a good portion of the novel really working to immerse you in the life of a Beijing native, and he does an excellent job. While the first part of the novel is essentially a culture lesson, it is well done, and never feels like it is moving too slowly.

These differences are most stark in the contrast between Li Yan and Dr. Campbell, May’s two main characters. Yan’s mindset is a fascinating one; he is an ambitious climber within the government’s police equivalent, determined to do things by the book, and with the guiding hand of his beloved uncle, who was also well-respected in the law enforcement world. The interaction between Yan and Campbell as they work together — not always in the most friendly of circumstances — really shows some of the unexpected differences between the western style of policing and the Chinese way. Those differences serve to make the plot more interesting.

The plot itself is relatively sparse — although spiced up by cultural wrinkles — and is almost just as much about the development of a relationship between Yan and Campbell as it is about the thriller plot, which kicks off with three interconnected murders with different MOs across the city. It spirals out from there to an international conspiracy, picking up pace as the novel moves on. Although the novel is not totally about this plot, it would actually be overwhelming if there was more to the thriller portion of this novel. As it stands, it’s very well balanced, and a reasonably well-executed technical thriller.

THE FIRE MAKER is a worthy beginning to May’s China Thriller series, and definitely worth a read for those looking to expand their reading to more unique settings!

Leave a Reply