In Beijing one does not have to look far to find a contradiction or a contrast. There is one on every corner. The nearest street vendor might well be a learned ex-university professor that has been transformed by the cultural revolution into a producer of wonderful jian bing, a breakfast pancake as well as riddles for Li Yan, a senior detective with the Beijing Municipal Police as he rides his bike to work.
“If a man walks in a straight line without turning his head, how can he continue to see everything he has walked past? There are no mirrors involved.” Asks Mei Yuan, the street vender of Yan Li. This is a regular ritual of theirs.
Today Li Yan has been called to what appears to be a ritual killing. A man had been beheaded, as he knelt with his hands tied behind his back with a silk cord. He has a placard around his neck with an apparent nickname on it, scored through by a single line and the number three. He is the fourth victim found in these circumstances. The main difference is that this man is an American. He has returned to China after many years of living and working in the United States at a prestigious University and has taken a lowly job at the US embassy going through visas. Another part of the mystery is that he is found at an apartment of his own, not the one given to him by the embassy.
The American Embassy has requested that Dr. Margaret Campbell assist in the autopsy of the sacrificial victim. The Chinese are not especially happy about this but they accept with good grace because Margaret Campbell has helped them before. They know that she sees things with a different and very perceptive eye, which gives them a distinctive edge in solving the crime. Li Yan, on the other hand is perturbed because he has had feeling for Margaret that developed during a previous case and had been warned that he must avoid any kind of a relationship with her.
Margaret does the postmortem on this last murder victim and does indeed open new avenues of investigation. She also begins to pursue a new relationship with an American archeologist working in China who is intent on soothing the feeling Li Han has trampled. The American Embassy is interested in assisting in the investigation and wangles Margaret onto the investigating team as well.
Another stress is placed on Li as his sister abandons her daughter and leaves her with him as she goes off to a secret location to have a forbidden second child, a boy. Li loves the little girl and is grateful that she does not suffer from a new Chinese syndrome known as ‘the little emperor’ quite commonly seen now a days as the one child allotted to Chinese families is quite doted upon and very spoiled. These children are acting like oh no !! Western children. But at the same time they are also growing up without cousins, aunts uncles or extended families. The young men are increasing in preponderance, as girls are not wanted because they are seen as not being there to help in the parent’s old age.
The answer to the riddle is that the man is walking backwards. Just as to solve this crime, the investigators have to look to the past for clues to solve a murder that is based very much in the present.