This time we continue our look at a novel from the detective series featuring female coroner Mia Song, Dark Witch by Erica Li Min and Atushuoli (《黑夜女巫》李敏，阿圖說力合著). Chapter 4 is the first glimpse we get of Mia Song, who is introduced at this point as Yu’er (雨日) Song. I’m going to transliterate it a little differently than it should be because of the r flip and how misleading the pinyin would be to a native speaker of English (yuri would be correct pinyin, but that looks like a Russian name which is pronounced very differently). Her Chinese name is kind of cute, perhaps “rainy day” though “rain and sun” was suggested to me as a translation. I think it depends on her characterization which might be more appropriate, but the former is more typical of English collocations than the latter. “Rain and sun” don’t go together much in English outside of “rain or shine,” which is a sports or business term that actually sounds less poetic than “rainy day.” Because this story is taking place in South Africa and maybe Hong Kong, many of the Chinese characters have an English name, and Mia Song is in this situation. The novel calls her by both names interchangeably.
In chapter 4, we see her at a busy crime scene in an unnamed city, probably Hong Kong. The book isn’t too clear on her background, which may have been established in the first book in the series. Mia leaves with police superintendent Qinghuai Wu to get coffee at Starbucks. They are rather chummy, even answering each other’s cell phone calls. Qinghuai is trying to avoid a woman calling him, but Mia picks up his phone when it rings and talks to his mother! Later when he picks up her cell call, it is an old boyfriend of Mia’s named Dmitri – also known by his Chinese name Qian Fu, the doctor married to the Yang family’s eldest daughter Anli whom we met in the last post. This chapter is really a nice touch, showing the warm relationship between Mia and Qinghuai, which we will see more of later.
Next, Mia meets with Anli Yang at Cape Town International Airport. Anli reveals that her younger sister Ankei was not in agreement with the rest of the family that Guorong Yang died from natural causes but believes that both he and their brother Andi were murdered. Ankei insisted that they needed to call Mia because the coffee grinds in the bottom of her cup formed the letter S, indicating Mia’s last name Song. They go by helicopter to the Yang estate to meet with Qian Fu and the rest of the family. Arriving for dinner, Anli introduces her as a graduate in pathology from Glasgow University who has now become a forensic investigator with the police. Glasgow University is mentioned often in the story at this point, and here is some background on its connection specifically to South Africa:
I’m unclear as to which location Mia Song might have studied at, but Glasgow University has a global reach. At any rate, she was the classmate of both Anli and Qian Fu there. Detective Aofuman arrives to discuss Andi’s cause of death. Ankei tries to get him to read the coffee grinds again as they explain why they sent for Mia to help them with the case. Aofuman asks Mia if she thinks it was murder.
When Qian Fu shows Mia to the guest room, she questions why they asked her to come investigate Guorong’s cause of death and not Andi’s. He replies it is because they need a second opinion on Guorong and Andi hasn’t had an autopsy yet. They discuss the genetic background of hemophilia and how the fact that it passes through the mother makes the father-son deaths look even more suspicious. Qian Fu points out that the Chinese community in South Africa is small, leading to more intermarriage and more expression of hemophilia as a medical condition. He also mentions his fears that his son Yigan may have inherited it. Then he brings up the problem of Guorong’s will, which requires them to discover the true cause of death before they can know which one to read and enforce. Mia speculates that the situation with the wills shows that Guorong might have expected to be murdered.
Anli interrupts with an introduction between Mia and Yigan, which makes Mia wonder. Qian Fu broke up with her seven years earlier to marry Anli because of an unexpected pregnancy, yet Yigan is only three years old. Qian Fu asks if the man who answered her phone when he called was her boyfriend, and she quips that he was though he doesn’t know it!
The next day, the family goes with Lawyer Pang to the family mausoleum to observe the exhumation of Guorong’s body, which is transported to the morgue at a hospital affiliated with his coffee empire and the place where Qian Fu works. Mia talks with Lawyer Pang before doing the examination, and he mentions that after Guorong’s death, the company trustees tried to seize control, and so Andi stepped in. That would have made him a prime suspect for murder, but then he died a week later. He decides he doesn’t want to be present during her examination, so she prepares to go into the morgue with scrubs.
In the examination room, she has a conversation with a young woman who is there to assist her. Detective Aofuman also arrives in time for Mia to consult with him. When she does examine Guorong’s body, she notices the body has no external wounds and thinks the report is incomplete because of something related to the official cause of death, acute internal hemorrhage caused by hemophilia. She looks more closely at the body in the sunlight and declares she can’t do an autopsy. Something was not done to the body, so it’s rotting too fast, which would cover up any evidence that Guorong was murdered.
She asks Aofuman why he didn’t request an autopsy earlier and whether he thought the death was suspicious. He says he did, but his superiors didn’t agree with him, so it wasn’t done. Mia asks the girl which doctor signed the death certificate, and it was Guorong’s regular doctor, Doctor Oumu. She also mentions to Mia that the Chinese are superstitious and want the corpse left whole. They discuss DNA testing with fingernails or hair, and Mia is particularly interested in Factor VIII because of some problem with the body she does notice, an ulcer of some kind. Here is what I have found about Factor VIII:
I don’t know much about medical topics, so I’m at a loss as to the importance of some of the things brought up in this section, but Mia ultimately decides she wants to do a test for Factor VIII.
Later that night when she is back at the Yang Estate long after everyone has finished dinner, the servants get her something to eat, and she finds herself fielding probing questions from many of the family members about her discoveries. She has a strange moment with Jitian, then Ankei interrupts, demanding to know about her father’s examination since she was the one family member who disagreed that it was a natural death. Mia is forced to admit she has no better idea at the moment of what happened. Later Qian Fu comes in with coffee, and he reveals that he worked with Doctor Oumu. She wonders aloud why he didn’t question Oumu’s diagnosis, but Qian Fu says it was due to the doctor’s authority. He also mentions that Doctor Oumu tended to Andi’s hemophilia. Mia tells him she thinks he’s too trusting.
When Mia returns to her room to get ready for bed, she finds Yigan hiding there, and Anli comes to fetch him. They have a difficult conversation about how the family thinks Anli killed her father and brother – maybe I have that wrong, and they are just upset to think they were murdered at all – and how Qian Fu was once Mia’s boyfriend. Mia tries to reassure her she doesn’t really think of her past with Qian Fu at all and that she only came to do the forensic examination.
Back in her room, Mia feels restless and calls Qinghuai Wu. His subordinate Bozi answers his cell, and they are staking out a cold storage warehouse. He goes to get Qinghuai, who tells him to go get them coffee before taking the phone. He asks how South Africa is, notes what time it is in her part of the world, and wonders why she’s calling in the middle of the night rather than sleeping. She tells him that she is upset and is having a hard time with the case. He says he has never known her to feel that way, that she should understand by now the nature of the business. He asks her if she remembers the three points of a murder case, and she answers body, scene and murderer. He says she’ll break the case, but she only expresses frustration, saying she can’t figure out the murder weapon without the cause of death. He suggests that means there isn’t a weapon. His superior Linhua arrives, and Qinghuai apologizes and has to hang up.
Thinking about what he said, she gets dressed again and goes to Andi’s room. It’s laid out similarly to her room and is flooded with moonlight. She notices he has a laptop computer; shelves of photos with Ankei and even Jitian, whom he had a chess match with; and lots of books, including ones showing cocoons and butterflies. One of them is marked with the English words “Life Infinity.” I don’t think she has turned the lights on at this stage, but is seeing what is around the room in the moonlight, so she is startled when Ankei walks in, talking to her brother and saying he has returned as a butterfly! Note that the title of this post is a direct quote of Ankei in this part of the novel.
Mia reveals that she is there, and Ankei suggests Mia help her find this butterfly, which she describes as yellow and black. Mia wonders if she would have better luck finding a butterfly in the garden, but Ankei insists that this is Andi’s soul returning. Mia is a little chagrined to be dealing with Ankei’s superstitious nature since Mia herself is a scientist. Ankei brings up something about crystals, too. Anli arrives and rebukes Ankei for her superstitious talk. Ankei leaves, and Mia asks Anli if Andi kept a diary. She tells her she doesn’t know. The women retire for the evening.
We’ll pause there before the mystery intensifies much more and finish the novel next time.
Part two of a three part series.