collected articles by Peter May


the pathologist

when research makes a difference

hi-tech writing

food for thought

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the pathologist

The pathologist had almost finished cutting up the body. He laid 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 almost fatal.

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 ears. 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 blood, 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 clear.

The pathologist was Dr. Steven C. Campman, and he has been the tireless adviser on my series of China thrillers.

The story he told me of the cut finger, was only one of many which 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 twinkling 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 Firemaker", 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 to 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 gruesome pranks - far too disturbing to go into here.

I remember having the oddest feeling, the first night I spent at 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 Institute of 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. Working for 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 perform the 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 Institute of 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 expert 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 daughter 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 another story....

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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 bottle.

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 previous day.

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 9th, 2000

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hi-tech writing

When I first started writing, more than thirty years ago, terms 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 me to 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. Script 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 - which 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 would grow.

Research, however, was still time-consuming, expensive and often 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 really 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 internet. In 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 around the 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 on the 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 the 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 upon me 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 generosity?

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 urine.

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 paste.
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 cultures.

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 asked.

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 no way 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 here to see them

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© Peter May 2004