Gwen Moffat lives in Cumbria. Her novels are set in remote communities ranging from the Hebrides to the American West. The crimes fit their environment, swelling that dreadful record of sin in the smiling countryside cited by Sherlock Holmes. The style echoes this: rustic charm masking horror.
Wounded in the Iraqi war and a bad marriage Ellie Cooper, former Army medic, washes up in Beijing where she struggles to build a new life with the help of a Chinese artist, an occasional but calming lover. Unfortunately he is subversive and, already a target for the repressive regime, he harbours a dissident fugitive and is forced to go underground.
Now American and Chinese agents focus on Ellie, the Chinese convinced she will reveal his whereabouts, the Americans with a more personal agenda. Ellie is a ticking bomb for as a medic she has seen the end results of another repressive regime.
In this explosive novel torture and torturers are portrayed as explicitly as the sex. Colloquial and rough, the very crudeness of the style bludgeons the reader into forgetting that the author is a crime novelist resident in LA; the text
reads as written by a young soldier suffering from deep stress. But the atrocities that she witnessed are not the stuff of fiction; we have seen the pictures of Abu Ghraib.
The military horrors have domestic roots; Brackman homes in on fundamentalist Christians of which her mother is one: cracking dirty jokes and exhorting her daughter to Come Back to Jesus in the same email. The author is as strong on hypocrisy as she is on depravity.
As a debut novel this is superb. Not fine writing but eminently suited to its times and the dreariness of modern China, the latter epitomised by its crumbling tenements, fake designer goods and an upmarket party on the Great Wall serviced by MacDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The end is the computer game that is a cover for conspirators, and a vision of Chairman Mao and a pink Cadillac all but buried in sand. The crudeness is a veneer; erudite and witty this clever author's rage is tempered by ironic humour and a faint gleam of hope.