The Snow Thief, C.J. Carver
THE SNOW THIEF is set in Tibet, with a Chinese Detective as it's central character, fighting her bosses for permission to look into the mysterious deaths of multiple little boys. It's a story of murder, a serial killer, stalking the entire country, obviously killing to a pattern, but it's also the story of the tensions between Tibet and China and the way that every step could be your last if you offend the wrong people.
Told with what feels like great authority, Carver has created central characters in this novel that draw you into the story, and the place deeply and completely. She declares, in the acknowledgements, that THE SNOW THIEF is a labour of love stemming from a childhood visit, bolstered by numerous returns as an adult. It's a story that's as much about a country under severe external pressure, a people who are desperately trying to hold onto their own identity in the face of overwhelming pressure from a mighty power, as it is the individual stories of Chinese Detective Shan Lia and those around her. Exiled to Tibet after a fall from grace and the death of her beloved husband, stuck in a very strange place, with only her husband's elderly relative, Fang Dongmei for company, there's much to her personal story that's tragic, and very moving.
As is the story, in the opening chapter, of six-year-old twin boys. One of whom, after an important visit to the local monastery, is found dead, from a broken neck, obviously murdered. Shocking enough, but when Shan Lia discovers he is the fifth boy to die of a broken neck in five weeks, she's shattered when rebuffed by her bosses who seem to be desperate to downplay the possibility of a serial killer in the countryside. Only one man, her immediate superior, seems willing to allow an investigation, but even that comes with potential personal cost to Shan Lia, although there's twists and turns, and official interference even there.
Readers with some knowledge of the tension between Tibet and China, the background to the exile of the Dalai Lama, and a bit about the structure of Tibetan Buddhism might be able to work out what the pattern of killings means, and therefore get some idea of the why, how and who. In some ways that's less important than the fact that it's happening, the impact the killings are having on families and communities at the time they are happening, but the chilling bit is more to do with the long-term outlook, the impact that these killings will have for years to come. It's murder with a long, cruel, manipulative viewpoint and all the more sobering because of that.
In particular, the backstory of Shan Lia's marriage is very moving, and the tentative forming of a relationship between the two women, exiled to Tibet through no fault of their own, each with their own grieving to be done, is beautifully done. Atmospheric and gripping THE SNOW THIEF casts light on the political situation between China and Tibet, reflected elegantly in the way that personal relationships work when there are power imbalances as well.
When a little boy is found with his neck broken, Lhasa detective Shan Lia leaves her broken past behind and throws herself into the investigation. He is the fifth child to die the same way in as many weeks.
But Lia’s superiors don’t want her looking for a serial killer. They don’t want panic and hysteria rolling across the country. They threaten Lia, giving her no choice but to turn her back on bringing the killer to justice. Until another boy is murdered. Then another.
Risking her life, Lia pursues the killer. With spies in the monasteries of Tibet and shadowy figures trying to thwart her hunt for justice, Lia faces the edge of the abyss to reveal the Snow Thief – but at what terrifying price?
The Snow Thief is a gripping novel set in Tibet. Through the eyes of a Chinese police officer the book poses the question of what might happen after the death of the Dalai Lama.