Book Review: Thief of Souls

Thief of Souls (Inspector Lu Fei #1)
by Brian Klingborg
288 pages
Expected publication date: May 4, 2021, by Minotaur Books

After he uncovered a scandal and angered the wrong official, Inspector Lu Fei was relegated to a backwater village in northern China where he spends more time dealing with missing chickens than fighting crime. He’s resigned himself to the life, though, as it keeps him away from higher-ranking officers in the nearby city– officers who would rather toe the line and maintain the status quo than dig deeper and fully investigate the crimes that happen in their districts. But the murder of a young woman puts an end to Lu’s quiet life when he is forced to call in his superiors from the city. Those superiors have their sights set on an easy target and a quick closure to the case. Lu suspects there’s more to the story than that, however, and he sets out to find the real killer in spite of those officials who want to keep their secrets buried. With the rise of the surveillance state and governmental insistence on maintaining order over all things, Lu finds himself in hot water at nearly every turn. But if he keeps quiet, he could lose far more than just his reputation or career.

With Thief of Souls, author Brian Klingborg opens a new mystery series set in a far different place than most readers would expect: a village in northern China. It’s unexpected both because few people ever think about small towns in China when the news only talks about Beijing and because when an American reader picks up a mystery series, it is, as a rule, set in a major American city or somewhere in the British Isles. But as the fourth largest country in the world and with more than a billion citizens, China is a more diverse country than most Americans think it is, and its people are both very different from us and also far more similar to us than we think.

Unfortunately, while Thief of Souls clearly wants to give the reader a look into the Chinese lives, culture, and traditions that American rarely hear about, it provides little more than a surface-level survey of its subject with explanations about gay clubs, the Cultural Revolution, and funeral rites shoehorned in to provide context– a method that feels intrusive half the time, and like the author doesn’t expect the reader to be clever enough to figure things out the other half of the time. And while, many American readers may be unfamiliar with the context and consequences of Mao Zedong’s policies in the 1950s-1970s, there are surely better ways of providing that context than diving into Lu Fei’s family history for several pages while he is ostensibly investigating a murder.

Still, Lu Fei is a likable enough character to keep the reader’s interest, and there is enough mystery to keep the pages turning even if the delivery is occasionally stilted and some side characters blend together. And there’s also the matter of plot threads that are picked up halfway through and then seemingly abandoned. Will they be addressed in subsequent volumes, or were they simply forgotten? It’s difficult to say, though it’s hard to imagine Klingborn putting the effort into creating the characters and subplot, only to forget about them two hundred pages in.

While its overall execution and style leave something to be desired, Thief of Souls gets at least an ‘A’ for effort. Mystery fans will likely be able to list half a dozen better writers, but practice makes perfect and though Thief of Souls stumbled as often as it runs, it may be that Lu Fei– and Klingborn– have nowhere to go but up.

Thank you to NetGalley and Minotaur Books for providing me a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. This did not affect my opinion.

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