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