The third of the Robin Ballantyne series, The Pool of Unease, takes place in China, where Robin, a British journalist, pools resources with private detective Song Ren to investigate the murder of a British man, Derek Sumner, whose headless body is found in an icy, fetid lake in Beijing and whose death is associated to a series of brutal attacks on local prostitutes. Derek Sumner had been the Beijing representative of Kelness, a mill in the north of England that exports steel to China to use in its automotive industry. Kelness is going bankrupt and is in the process of being bought by a rich Chinese entrepreneur, Nelson Li, who intends to dismantle the company and transplant it to China.
The murder investigation is connected to Kelness’ acquisition process, which is used in the novel to illustrate the massive arrival of foreign businesses and corporations in China looking for cheap labour in “a global market [where] there is no such a thing as a minimum wage” (Sampson 2007: 138) and which are now “eating away like insects at the rotting bamboo curtain … crawling over everything” (Sampson 2007: 280). However, Sampson does not establish a sense of continuity between China’s colonial past and the neo-colonial practices at work in the country, as if neo-colonialism was a phenomenon that, far from revealing the West’s uninterrupted encroachment on foreign territories, has finally made Chinese people aware of the opportunities and prosperity they had missed when the Bamboo Curtain fell. Thus, Mao’s revolution – no matter how pernicious it turned out to be in the end – to free China from years of subjection is presented as a big historical tantrum “led by a party of paranoia, fearing contamination” (Sampson 2007: 280) that stalled China’s progress for over four decades.
The Chinese citizens’ sufferings because of Mao’s policies are, in fact, used as shorthand for the country’s whole traumatic past. In the novel, this past manifests itself both as haunted memories of tragic events and as an ingrained state of being that prevents China’s complete modernization, especially in rural provinces away from big cities such as Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong, characterized by a lack of basic facilities such as toilets, electricity or telephones. Thus, capitalism has brought prosperity to the country but, in the novel, it is made clear it has not changed Chinese society for the better since the country remains essentially backward, especially in the interior.
Capitalism has also transformed the outlook of cities since capitalism means frenetic change. Consequently, “nothing look[s] … traditionally Chinese” (Sampson 2007: 55) anymore as high-rises, neon lights and gigantic advertisements occupy the places of traditional hutongs in cities where “construction sites … [spring] up wherever there [are] slums or empty ground” (Sampson 2007: 177) and working gangs are “bashing away with picks at the tarmac or digging ditches or straddling pneumatic drills … engaged … in the brutal, back-breaking creation of … modern metropolis[es]” (Sampson 2007: 269). Part of the investigation takes place in Shanghai, which is presented as taken over by “brash and unsightly” skyscrapers and a TV tower “like an alien killer spider rising above Pudong,” (Sampson 2007: 332) so it is a city of “neon lights …, the Martian TV tower illuminated in pink, skyscrapers on whose massive sides gigantic advertisements [play]” (Sampson 2007: 339). Commercialism is fiercely active so hawkers “offering … toys and souvenirs and food” (Sampson 2007: 332) besiege people on every side.
The novel also portrays the widespread poverty and destitution in the country. At night, cities like Beijing become fantasy worlds of fluorescent light with “flashing peacocks, shimmering rainbows and incandescent butterflies” (Sampson 2007: 73) but they do nothing to counter the brutality of day-time China, the ‘real’ China littered with rubbish and debris forming “a carpet of degradation” (Sampson 2007: 273). The whole country, in fact, is a nightmare of waste dumps, shabby neighbourhoods and Dantesque landscapes with “acres of roads, … inflated buildings, … [wild] construction sites with their earthen dunes, their gaping foundations,” (Sampson 2007: 58) home to a cast of miserable figures that populate the background of the stories. There are armies of “beggars everywhere now” (Sampson 2007: 59): “a girl with no legs … who push[es] herself on makeshift wheels,” “ragged women with sleeping children in their arms,” a woman who pushes a “boy in a wheelchair, his mouth agape and drooling,” or a boy who darts back and forth “dropping to his knees, head jerking and bobbing in servile desperation, palm outstretched” (Sampson 2007: 340). Scavengers move about “waterfalls of detritus,” “bent, spines doubled over their task” amidst the “reeking garbage” (Sampson 2007: 288-289) in dumps and gutters.
The novel is a murder investigation but it is also a vivid account of modern China’s shadowy underbelly.