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THE RUNNER by Peter May: Book Review

East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. Rudyard Kipling certainly knew what he was writing about.  Almost.

The Runner by Peter May is what the author calls The Fifth China Thriller.   It was written in 2003 but published in the United States only this year.  I had read one book in the series previously, but it would be better to read the books in order to follow the story line.

Li Yan is a Deputy Section Chief in the Beijing Police Department, a high-ranking position.  He is more modern and innovative than most of his colleagues, having spent time in America and picked up some of its investigative techniques.  This, of course, does not always make him popular, especially with his deputy, the more traditional and very jealous Tao Heng.  When Li went to Washington as a liaison at the Chinese embassy, Tao succeeded him in Beijing and hoped to be appointed permanently to the Deputy Section Chief position.  But when Li returned he received the appointment, and this has colored the relationship between the two ever since.

The plot of The Runner involves the mysterious deaths of several outstanding Chinese athletes–runners, a weight lifter, and a swimmer–all of whom were destined to be medal winners in the Chinese-American Games taking place as the novel opens and that are a prequel to the upcoming Olympics.  Remember, this book was published in 2003.   There seems to be no common denominator among the deaths–a heart attack, a car accident, a suicide.  But there are too many deaths in too short a time not to arouse Li’s suspicions.

Alongside the athletes’ deaths is the upcoming marriage of Li and Margaret Campbell, the American pathologist who met Li years ago when she visited Beijing to give a series of lectures.  Theirs has been a difficult on-and-off-again romance, given the cultural differences and geographical distances between them.  By the time this novel opens much of that has been resolved, and the two are planning their wedding for the upcoming week, shortly before Margaret is due to deliver their baby.

What Margaret does not know is that once married, Li will automatically be fired from his job, as no one in his high position is allowed to marry a foreign national.

In addition to this unknown, there is the known–the fact that both Margaret’s mother, who is coming from Connecticut to Beijing for the wedding, and Li’s father, who is coming to Beijing from the countryside for the wedding, are against the marriage for the same reason.  Neither thinks their child’s upcoming marriage partner is appropriate.  Racism and xenophobia abound here, but there also is a very interesting dynamic that shows the long-standing tensions between parent and child in both families.

Both Li and Margaret are headstrong, not easy people to get along with in their relationships with their parents.  It’s a sidelight that makes both of them, and their parents, more interesting, more human.  And Peter May does an excellent job showing these tensions and the long-standing issues that separate generations in the same family.

While I strongly recommend starting this series with the first novel, The Firemaker, each book may be read independently.  But May makes his characters so fascinating and the culture of China’s capital city so intriguing that it’s worth going back to the beginning to follow Li and Margaret, in both their public and private lives.

You can read more about Peter May at his web site.