The Third Messiah
"A dazzling tour of contemporary Beijing life."
"West’s descriptions of the police, and how they function in China, are outstanding."
Ted Hertel, Deadly Pleasures
When I visited the city of Nanjing, I visited the museum of the Taiping Rebellion. This quiet dusty museum told the story of one of the strangest and most bloody events in world history – about which most Westerners know absolutely nothing.
The story begins in the mid-nineteenth century… Hong Xiuquan was a clever but highly-strung young man from a poor background, bright enough to enter the all-important exams for the Imperial Civil Service, but not bright enough – or not polished enough – to pass. In despair at his failure, he fell into a depression, which was lifted when he was handed a leaflet by a Christian missionary. Hong went to sleep that night and slept soundly for the first time in ages – and dreamt that the Christian God was calling him to be Jesus’ brother, and to convert and redeem China from its Manchurian overlords.
Hong gathered groups of fanatics around him, clashed with the authorities, became an outlaw, started a guerrilla war… Like Mao Zedong three generations later, he proved himself a natural military leader, and soon his ragtag army was raging across South China, armed with old muskets, looted cannons, knives on sticks – anything his believers could get their hands on. It doesn’t say much for the Chinese emperor or his Western allies that Hong soon conquered half the country, and for a number of years ruled as an alternative emperor in Nanjing. In the end, he became more and more eccentric; his rule collapsed and the reprisals were, of course, brutal. It is estimated that 20,000,000 people lost their lives in the course of the rebellion, in the fighting and in the chaos that it created.
This story had to be told (and has been, in Jonathan Spence’s excellent ‘God’s Chinese Son’). But how about updating it? Not in precise detail, of course, but imagine a new cult springing up in modern China, with a head who sees himself as another Hong Xiuquan…
You may notice a parallel with the Falun Gong or Falun Dafa, a grass-roots spiritual organization that has grown in China (and, since 1999 been persecuted by the authorities there). However when I wrote the book, I had no knowledge of the organization. Actually, people said to me that such an outfit was unlikely to develop in China…
I am interested in the whole business of cults (I don’t want to get involved in the argument about whether Falun Gong is a cult or just a set of spiritual practices: the outfit in my book is definitely a cult). Why do people join them, and what happens to them when they do? Cults also make great material for crime stories. A cult HQ is often remote and closed, like the traditional Agatha Christie country house. At the same time, however, such an organization would be set firmly in the modern world, with political overtones (in China, it would not develop unwatched: so who is watching, and why do they allow an apparently anti-Communist organization to continue?)
The novel is set against the upcoming millennium – itself a magnet for cults: how, exactly, does the cult leader plan to usher in the new era?
To research it, I returned to Beijing – and had a serious attack of culture shock. People had told me how much it had changed, but I was not expecting the Hong Kong shopping malls, the new-look Wangfujing – and the terrible clogging of its once majestic boulevards with cars. Such is progress, and one must welcome it, as it means better lives for most people, materially and, one must hope in the long term, politically. But it is not without costs.
The story begins in the centre of this new Beijing, where ‘Julie’ Lin is sitting eating one of Colonel Sanders’ chickens. Julie is what a Chinese friend of mine called a ‘Chuppie’, China’s answer to the ‘yuppies’. Or rather, she is a satellite orbiting round the yuppie culture: she herself is not a dynamic young professional, but simply an attendant to such people. So maybe it is not surprising that she is unhappy with her life, and is looking for something more than just money, parties and transitory love affairs. Her family – of which Rosina Lin is a part – don’t understand her, or really like her any longer. Then she meets a young man on the street, with a strange and compelling new message…
This was the final novel in the quartet. I hugely enjoyed writing it, and it was well published, in the UK and America. My agent wanted more… But I felt this was a good place to stop. So many series lose quality, become more far-fetched or, worse, repetitive. I like the old showbiz adage ‘quit while you’re winning’. So I did.
"Not only an interesting detective story, but a bang up-to-date commentary on the dilemmas of modern China, where young and old are grappling with the change from ancient traditions and Marxism to consumer-crazy Westernization."
Bernard Knight, Tangled Web
"Transcends the genre, and illustrates how far fictional Chinese detectives have come since the days of Charlie Chan."
Paul Chapman, Sherlock Holmes Magazine