As the spring sun melts winter away, a dead body is seen in the ice. Who can forget the opening of Martin Cruz Smith's 1981 thriller Gorky Park) Not Lisa See, apparently. In her first novel she draws amply on Smith's inspiration. Oh, well, the sincerest form of flattery sometimes produces a credible page-turner, and See, who has traveled extensively in China, does a workmanlike job with the plot and paints a vivid portrait of a vast Communist nation in the painful throes of a sea change.
The body under the ice of a Beijing lake belongs to the son of the U.S. ambassador to China. His mysterious death is soon linked to that of a "Red Prince," a member of the country's social elite. So local detective Liu Hulan and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Starke team up to discover where the connection leads. Along with producing some high-voltage sexual sparks, this winsome duo is soon plugging into the venerable, close-knit neighborhoods of the capital, dining with leaders who bitterly remember the Red Guard years and unraveling the mysteries of Chinese organized crime.
In the process, See explores a nation moving relentlessly toward a market economy that will leave millions behind in dusty villages, but a nation, too, that is still unwilling to forget the precepts of Chairman Mao. In her next effort, though, the author should let go of the Gorky Park model. It gets in the way. (HarperCollins, $24)