Chengdu: a teeming, modern metropolis.
Yet China’s painful turbulent history still leaves its mark on the minds of all who live there.
Philip Ye, half English, half Chinese, is a homicide detective with the Chengdu Public Security Bureau who suffers his own anguish from a life blighted by tragedy and the unsettling appearance of ghosts that often intrude in on his investigations.
On a misty grey morning one such apparition leads him to a busy street corner during the rush hour where he bears witness to a shocking event. Against his better judgment, Phillip is drawn into the search for a missing, vulnerable boy. His investigation brings him into contact with Xu Ya, a brilliant and beautiful public prosecutor. She is new to Chengdu, determined not only to make her mark but to also leave behind her own personal heartbreak. They have crossed paths before. He has no memory of her, but she remembers him very well indeed…
Soon enough Philip Ye has a vicious murder on his hands, and then another – the boy’s disappearance seemingly sparking a chain of violent events. With the help of Xu Ya – dedicated to upholding făzhì, the Rule of Law, in China ‒ and her indefatigable and worldly-wise assistant Fatty Deng, Phillip Ye is quickly on the trail of a mysterious figure known as The Willow Woman. But, unbeknownst to them all, there are secretive and subversive forces at work within the dark heart of the city and tremendous danger awaits…
Rating: 5/5 stars
Publication Date: 7th January 2019
Page Count: 440 pages
Genre: Crime / Mystery / Thriller
The Willow Woman
‘…the living were the living, and the dead were the dead, and never the twain should meet…’
Westwood’s second book (and the first in his Philip Ye series) rises above many other crime novels I have read this year, with its sophisticated and fascinating look into the Chinese criminal justice system. Elaborate and intense in its execution, The Willow Woman is packed with corruption, spirituality, and tragedy. It is certainly one of my favourite reads of 2019.
Published in January by Shikra Press, The Willow Woman primarily follows Philip Ye, a biracial spirit-medium and homicide detective with the Chengdu Public Security Bureau. Questioning the occurrence of visiting apparitions, he is one day led to an unsettling event which eventually equals in his determined search for a missing and vulnerable young man. As new players begin to get involved, this sets off ‘a chain of violent events’, including multiple murders. And, before we know it, Ye and his associates uncover that Chengdu has an even darker and treacherous underbelly than previously thought.
Although focused on Ye, The Willow Woman is met with contrasting perspectives every chapter, jigsawing together. This is how we are introduced to the other wealth of storylines. Prosecutor Xu Ya is a key character of interest. Fiery and uncompromising, she believes the rule of law should be upheld regardless of circumstance or urgency. She is both admirable, yet frustrating, and such attributes add to the constant, one-sided power struggle between her and Philip Ye. Personal favourites of mine include Fatty Deng and Constable Ma, who are consistent underdogs throughout, and provide the book with most of its humorous moments.
Upon first look, as noted by other reviewers, Westwood’s novel can appear daunting for those unfamiliar with the Chinese system. The large quantity of characters may add to this. But with an accommodating character index in the book’s opening pages, as well as an introduction to the system, it does not take long to grasp the relationships between characters and Chengdu’s bleak atmosphere. Further historical information is also easily accessible on Westwood’s website (listed below) for those keen on understanding China’s history, transition and culture further.
Throughout, Westwood’s extensive research can be noted. As a student of Chinese law (both dynastic and modern), and with a clear interest in China’s culture altogether, the information given feels enthusiastic and intricately added. As noted by a fellow reviewer, it never feels like an “information-dump”. The knowledge given is done so incrementally, adding to character’s beliefs, and bringing spiritual and political endeavours to the fore.
The writing is absorbing, and the investigative representation feels natural and authentic. This, perhaps, may be due to Westwood’s own background as an investigator. It is easy to become invested in certain characters as their tragic backstories are shared – it seems no character has had an “easy life”.
Overall, The Willow Woman was a joy to read. I very much look forward to a sequel, and to see where Ye’s story takes us next. I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys crime novels featuring cults, sparse elements of the supernatural / spiritual, and especially law students (like myself) who enjoy drawing comparisons between adversarial and inquisitorial procedures.
About the author
After a (probably ill-advised) degree in Theoretical Physics, Laurence commenced upon a varied career in law enforcement and information security consultancy. He regularly lectures at the University of Warwick on computer law and IP enforcement.He has had a long-standing fascination with the political, military, social and legal history of China. He lives just outside of Stratford-upon-Avon, England.
Westwood’s website can be found here.
His Twitter can be found here.