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The pathologist had almost finished cutting up the body. He
the internal organs - heart, lungs, kidneys, liver - on the sloping
drainer at the end of the autopsy table, and turned away to examine the
pics from the crime scene.
It was only a momentary break in concentration, but it was
He turned back to the table and scooped up the organs in his
gloved hands. But failed to notice that they had slipped down the
drainer to obscure his favourite French chef's cutting knife. The point
of it sliced through the latex and pierced his middle finger.
He recoiled immediately, the sound of blood rushing in his
It was only the merest nick, but he knew it could kill him.
And until he got the results of a screening of the victim's
he had no idea whether or not he had been infected with something
deadly - like AIDS.
He endured an agony of days before finally getting the all
The pathologist was Dr. Steven C. Campman, and he has been
tireless adviser on my series of China thrillers.
The story he told me of the cut finger, was only one of many
I have been able to use to make my pathologist character, Margaret
Campbell, one hundred percent authentic.
Steve is a character himself. With mobile eyebrows, a
smile, and a Bugs Bunny voice, he is the embodiment of the eccentric
pathologist. His sense of humour, working at the cutting edge of death,
is a sanity saver.
He was based at the Medical Examiner's office in Sacramento,
California, when I first contacted him on the internet, through a
friend of a friend.
I was writing the first of the China thrillers, "The
and needed some authentic detail on the autopsy of a burn victim. Steve
replied to my e-mail immediately, and said he was well acquainted with
"crispy critters", as he called them. He proceeded to fax me forty
pages of material on autopsies, including a fictitious autopsy report
on my fictional burn victim.
Our relationship was well and truly cemented. And he went on
provide me with copious amounts of detail for the follow-up, "The
Fourth Sacrifice" as well as "The Killing Room" - including the science
of blood spatter patterns, what a section of neck from a severed head
looks like on a comparison microscope, and what kind of scarring is
left in the womb by an abortion.
After more than two years of communicating only by e-mail, I
finally met Steve when I went to America to research "Snakehead". My
wife and I were kindly invited to stay with his family in the small
Maryland town of Gaithersburg.
With a macabre sense of humour, he is renowned for his
pranks - far too disturbing to go into here.
I remember having the oddest feeling, the first night I
his home, watching him preparing dinner. He was cutting up chicken
breasts with a French chef's knife. I'm sure it wasn't the one he used
for his day job - but with Steve you never can tell.
At this time he was working out of the Armed Forces
Pathology just outside Washington D.C. He had been called up to serve
in the Airforce. They had paid to put him through med. school. In
return he had to give a minimum of three years to the service.
But those three years have been an education for him.
the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, he is called out at a moment's
notice to go anywhere in the world to perform autopsies on U.S.
servicemen and women. He has had to cope with aircrashes, murders,
suicides, and accidental deaths from auto-erotic misadventure.
While we were staying with him, he was called away to
autopsies on the remains of the men and women killed aboard the U.S.
warship "USS Cole" which was blown up by terrorists in Yemen.
Via a "memorandum of understanding", the Armed Forces
Pathology also provides pathology services for the FBI - which has
meant Steve having to deal with some pretty gruesome cases. On one
occasion he was in Mexico, digging up the bodies of drug runners buried
in a mass grave. By the time he got to them, the bodies were a lurid
shade of green.
He also has to give evidence in criminal court cases - an
witness whose evidence is often the difference between a criminal being
convicted or not. And he can get emotionally involved - especially when
the victim is a child.
Such good friends have Steve, his wife Trenda, and their
Danielle, become that I was moved to dedicate "The Killing Room" to the
whole Campman family. They came to stay for a holiday with us in Europe
- their first Transatlantic trip - and their visit was marked by one of
the most chilling coincidences I have ever witnessed. But that's
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when research makes a difference
I felt the chill of an icy finger trace its way down my
spine as I
pushed open the door of the stainless steel isolation shower. Those in
fear of their lives, and the people who nursed them, had passed this
way, powerless against the ravages of some deadly disease - a virus or
bacterium escaped from a test tube, a killer genie let out of the
I had been given complete access to the facilities of the U.S.
biowarfare defence centre at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
And I spent the rest of the day washing my hands.
I was in America to research my book, "Snakehead", the fourth in a
series of thrillers featuring Beijing detective Li Yan, and Chicago
pathologist Margaret Campbell.
For me, half the pleasure in reading a book, is the chance to be
transported to some exotic location I might never otherwise see. As a
writer I am privileged to visit such places for real. And I want my
readers to see and feel and smell these places, too, so that they are
with my characters every step of the way.
My researches for the first three books in the series, "The Firemaker",
"The Fourth Sacrifice", and "The Killing Room" led me on several visits
to China, where excellent contacts secured unprecedented access to the
strange and arcane world of the Chinese justice system.
During my first visit I was guest of honour at a police banquet held in
a restaurant off Tiananmen Square. My host, the charismatic Police
Commissioner Wu He Ping, recounted how he had captured a gang who stole
priceless artefacts to smuggle out of the country. The case became
famous in China when it was made into an eight-hour TV drama, written
and produced by Commissioner Wu, and starring himself - as himself.
The interpreter, clearly in awe of the Commissioner, explained that the
gang members had also played themselves in the drama. I thought that I
must have misunderstood, and asked for clarification. Smiling,
Commissioner Wu said that they had cut some real footage of the actual
thieves into the drama, but had been forced to employ actors after they
had been executed.
My appetite for the deep-fried scorpions on my plate diminished further.
Commissioner Wu, however, went on to open many doors for me in China;
the walled campus of Beijing University where lakes and bridges and
tiny pavilions nestle in secluded tranquillity between beautiful
faculty buildings; the Terracotta Warriors in situ in Xian; the
Shanghai police department while researching The Killing Room.
I have since been treated to many banquets, and faced such delights as
barbecued grubs on a stick, fried prawn smothered in ants, stir-fried
snake, one-hundred-year-old eggs (which actually attain their brown
colour by steeping in horse's urine). All washed down with beer and the
cry of gan bei - a toast meaning, literally, bottoms up, and in
Shanghai, police code for 'let's get the guest of honour drunk'. What
they failed to realise was that the capacity for alcohol of a fifteen
stone Scot is considerably greater than that of a nine stone Chinese.
So I survived - just.
But perhaps my most traumatic experience in Shanghai was while viewing
the ultra-modern mortuary and autopsy facilities. I was shown around by
the chain-smoking and laconic Yan Jian Jun, senior forensic pathologist
with the Shanghai Police. Yan took great delight in sliding open the
drawers of the eighty-body refrigerated storage unit to let me see some
of the bodies. And in one of the autopsy rooms he ignored my polite
refusal to view a recently autopsied corpse, and had two assistants
wheel it in on a gurney.
They unzipped the white body bag to reveal the remains of a young man
in his early twenties. He was carved open like a carcass in a butcher's
shop. But what I found most shocking was the expression on his face.
Eyes closed, his features were bunched up in a frown of pain or fear,
or both, dark hair smeared across his forehead. I asked the interpreter
how he had died and she whispered to me that he had been executed the
That experience has only been usurped by a visit, during my American
trip, to the Death House in Texas, where thirty-four prisoners have
been executed so far that year; the cell where they spent their last
miserable hours; the table to which they were strapped before having
three IVs attached to their arms; the tiny room behind the two-way
mirror where the medics started the poison flowing.
Such experiences bring to my writing, I hope, a sense of awe and
respect for death. For such first-hand contact with the dead, makes it
only too real. And we should never write, or read, of it lightly.
Article published in the Daily Express, December
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When I first started writing, more than thirty years ago,
like "zip disk", "gigabyte" and "firewire" would have meant nothing to
me. Now I sit at a computer connected to the internet, a picture in the
corner of my screen replaying a crucial location on digital video, a
piece of software telling me how many words I've written.
I used to think the sentences I wrote flowed directly from
paper through the pen in my hand. I didn't want anything to get in the
way of that, reluctant even to use a typewriter. Then eight years in
journalism turned me into a touch-typist. Words and paper became
connected by a keyboard.
In the late seventies I started writing television drama.
drafts were laboriously hammered out on my battered old portable. I
began to see the advantage of keying my words only once, being able to
re-write without having to re-type. I bought my first Apple Macintosh.
It had no hard disk (what was that?), and just 256k of RAM -
meant it could only hold half a script in its memory. But it seemed
like a miracle. I could never have dreamed how rapidly that miracle
Research, however, was still time-consuming, expensive and
frustrating, limiting me to subjects relatively close to home -
remember the old adage... write about what you know?
Then in 1996 I had an idea for a story which would only
work in a Chinese setting. "The Firemaker" involved a smouldering
corpse in a Beijing park, a Chinese cop and an American pathologist. I
knew nothing about the Chinese police, or pathology, and had only been
to Beijing once.
But I had just made a very important discovery. The
just fifteen years the advances in computer technology had brought the
world to my desktop. There did not seem any topic I could not tackle.
Through the power of e-mail I made invaluable contacts
world, gaining direct access to the arcane field of Chinese criminal
justice. It was on the internet that I "met" my pathology adviser, a
medical examiner with the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, who
e-mails me all the information I require to make my novels authentic.
Whatever subject I am researching, I can access in minutes
internet information which might otherwise have taken months to uncover.
When I make my research trips to China or America, I take my
palm-sized digital video camera to shoot all my locations. Back at my
desk, I edit them on my iMac computer and save them as files which
appear as little television pictures at the top of my screen, giving me
instant access to the sights and sounds of my trip to refresh my (not
always reliable) memory.
I could not have written any of The China Thrillers without
power of my computer - at least, not in the same timescale.
Technology has truly empowered my writing.
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food for thought
Fifteen pairs of eyes around the banquet table were fixed
as I raised the black and crispy deep-fried whole scorpion to my lips
with quivering chopsticks. I hesitated.
'It is ve-ery good,' said my host, Police Commissioner Wu He Ping of
the Beijing Municipal Police. 'In China we eat scorpion for medicine
and for pleasure.'
And to demonstrate, he popped one in his mouth, and crunched down upon
it with relish. All eyes returned to me. My mouth was dry. I gulped and
parted my lips.
But the moment of truth was delayed yet again as someone held out the
plate to my wife. It was piled with prawn crackers, and scorpions had
been placed to appear as if they were crawling all over it. Sensibly,
she declined. But as the guest of honour, I had no such escape route.
And as, finally, I was forced to bring my molars down upon the deadly
insect and release its foul, acid taste into my mouth, I heard the
interpreter tell my wife, 'You are quite right - they are disgu-usting.'
I love Chinese food, but during my trips to China to research my
Chinese thrillers, I sometimes got more than I bargained for.
Research for "The Killing Room", took me to Shanghai and a
confrontation with the Shanghai Hairy Crab. This is a great delicacy
costing around ten dollars a time - an astronomical sum in China, where
you can have a seven course meal for less.
Again, I was the guest of honour at a banquet, held this time by the
Shanghai police. A waitress brought to the table a plate piled high
with steamed whole crab, and put a bowl of dark brown dipping sauce at
each place. The crabs had white bellies and black backs covered with a
fine golden hair.
Having done my homework, I knew not only that they cost ten dollars
apiece, but that in the past they had been associated with serious food
poisoning as a result of improper handling. But how could I refuse such
A crab was placed in front of each person, and my host showed me how to
eat it, pulling free a thumbnail-sized piece of shell from the
underside, and using it to scoop out the yellow flesh beneath it,
dipping it first in the sweet soy and vinegar mixture before eating.
He watched me as I ate, and asked, 'It is good?'
'Hmmm,' I said. 'Excellent.' And it was.
'Yes,' said my host, nodding. 'The sexual organs are the best part.'
I immediately felt my enthusiasm waning.
My researches for "The Firemaker", the first in the China series, had
already introduced me to stir-fried snake which, dipped in soy sauce,
was really quite delicious. Another delicacy I had encountered was
Drunken Shrimp - live prawns brought to the table in a bowl of soy and
wine in which they, literally, drown. I had only realised they were
alive when they started flapping about in the bowl and splashed the
blouse of the lady sitting next to me. 'When they stop moving,' she
explained to me, 'you peel off the shell and eat immediately.' To my
astonishment, they were excellent.
Less pleasant surprises, however, included such delights as poisonous
fish, tested by an official taster before you dare eat it, and One
Hundred Year Old Eggs. These eggs, it transpired, were not very old at
all, but gained their brownish bloom from being steeped in horse's
The Chinese love nothing better than to eat, and the range and style of
their cuisine is unsurpassed. You can get a glimpse of it at the
Dong'anmen Night Market, just off Wanfujing Street in Beijing.
From five every evening, a row of food stalls stretches as far as the
eye can see. Hundreds of people crush along its length, flitting
between stalls groaning with skewered meat and vegetables, whole fish,
barbecued baby quails impaled on chopsticks (head and all), deep-fried
grubs on sticks.
From beneath dozens of striped canopies set under the trees, smoke
rises from hot oil in giant woks on open braziers. Huge copper kettles
on hotplates hiss and issue steam into the night sky, boiling water
tipping from long curling spouts to make bowls of thick, sweet almond
Dozens of chefs in white coats and hats sweat over steaming vats of hot
coals, drawing out bamboo racks of steamed buns filled with savoury
meats or sweet lotus paste. Rice and noodles and soup are served in
bowls, with buckets set at the roadside for the dirty dishes. It is a
meeting place as well as an eating place, whole families gathering with
friends to eat and talk under lights strung from the trees overhead.
Or you can stuff your face at the original Beijing Duck restaurant in
Qianmen, not far from the south end of Tiananmen Square. Through huge
windows you can see dozens of water-filled ducks hanging from poles
being slid into great wood-burning ovens to roast on the outside and
boil on the inside. The chefs carve them at your table.
Alternatively, in dozens of restaurants around the capital, you can
cook your own lamb and beef in the bubbling stock of a Mongolian
Hotpot. Absolutely mouth-watering.
The second book in the series, "The Fourth Sacrifice" took me to Xian,
home of the Terracotta Warriors. This ancient city was at the end of
the old Silk Road, and its cuisine was influenced by many difference
My researches led me to the culture shock of the old Muslim Quarter,
where flies crawled over barrows piled high with stinking ox livers,
and rancid animal pelts hung from lines at the roadside. I saw a
butcher's boy throwing the carcasses of animals from a shop doorway
into the back of an open van. And I was extremely reticent about eating
the pieces of skewered barbecued lamb served with chilli soy dip which
my guide ordered up in a small dirty back room off the main street.
But the meat was tender and delicious, and my wife and I both survived
the night without a dash to the toilet.
As the guest of honour at most banquets, I usually have to eat whatever
is offered. But it was my wife who was caught out on our last trip. I
had already picked a couple of butterflied prawns off the lazy susan
but had not had the chance to eat them before I heard my wife asking
her neighbour if it was toasted sesame seeds that crusted the prawns.
'Try them and see,' he suggested.
She did, but was unable to identify the flavour. 'What are they?' she
Her neighbour grinned. 'Deep fried ants,' he told her happily.
I pushed my prawns to the far side of my plate.
Peter May's mixed culinary experiences in China have in
diminished his passion for Chinese food. As the chef de cuisine at
home, he has honed his skills in oriental cooking, and has published
his own favourite recipes on this website. Click
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© Peter May 2004