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A villager comes to meet Mr Song, ex-policeman and current proprietor of an investigating agency which operates out of a back alley in a slummy Beijing hutong (a narrow street) that is being knocked down by developers before his eyes.

The desperate man’s five-year-old daughter is dead, the guilty haven’t been arrested, and there’s been a cover-up. He offers Song everything he owns including his house, but Song is unwilling to take on the case—private investigators in China aren’t supposed to investigate murders. That’s police work. And Song doesn’t want to get into political trouble.

Next day, the man is on the roof of the International Trade Tower, one of the new skyscrapers that are so emblematic of modern China, and Song has to try to convince him to climb down. But the man falls to his death, leaving Song with the frozen corpse of his daughter. And a dangerous document. And a deep sense of guilt.

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“By the time I started writing fiction set in China I had already lived here for a long time," Sampson told me. “I was a student in Shanghai before the dawn of time, and then a few years later I was an English teacher in the port city of Xiamen, then a journalist for The Times for six years in Beijing."

She returned to China in 2001 with her foreign correspondent husband and it was at that point, as an expat housewife with three children, that she got into crime fiction. She has published four thrillers so far.

“This is a country that still keeps foreigners somewhat at arm’s length, but I felt, wrongly or rightly, that I knew it well enough to write about it. Indeed, I’d been writing about China for years as a journalist, so it wasn’t a huge leap to write fiction set here," she explains. “Our cultures and histories may be different, but under the skin most people share very basic human urges—to fall in love, to protect our families, to make enough money to survive, to stay out of trouble."

While that may be so, one would imagine that the process of doing research in China is very different from other, more open societies?

“I write books about things that fascinate me, so the research isn’t really work, it’s just an excuse for finding out," she says. “I contacted a Chinese private detective and talked to him about his work at length. Previously, as a journalist, I had interviewed the police, and even gone out on patrol with them in Shanghai once, and I had also visited prisons," she adds and then reveals: “The very first scene of The Slaughter Pavilion, in which a man climbs to the top of a very tall building with the frozen body of a child strapped to his back and scatters a letter of petition on the street below—that is based on an incident that happened, and that I heard about on the day it happened from someone on a bus on the street below. There are many other things in that book that are very close to things that have happened."

Do Chinese readers react differently to your books from, say, British readers?

“The reaction has come mostly from British readers—some of whom have been shocked by the things I describe in the book. And from a few English-speaking Chinese friends, some of whom have perhaps been slightly taken aback to see their country’s dark side portrayed by a foreign writer," she admits. “I had no ‘official’ reaction, and indeed the book has kept a very low profile in China because it has not been translated into Chinese. I did speak to a Chinese publisher about translating it, a few years ago, but he said that so much would have to be cut because of censorship that it wasn’t worth it. I hear that it might be easier now."

So for the time being, Chinese readers who wish to read Sampson’s thrillers will have to hunt for imported copies in the bookshops. If you’re very curious, you’ll find an excerpt on www.catesampson.com along with a video about the ideas behind the book.

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time In Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout Of Bengaluru.

Also Read | Zac’s previous Lounge columns

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