The Shadow Walker by Michael Walters

Gruesome murder mystery mines gold in the wilds of Outer Mongolia
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The Independent Culture

New crime fiction gaily leaps political boundaries. Fictional detectives have marked their patches from Istanbul to Iceland, and Michael Walters's The Shadow Walker takes us further than ever - to Outer Mongolia. Among traditional survivals and explosions of new industry, Inspector Nergui, chief of the Serious Crime Squad, has to solving some exceedingly gruesome murders.

There are plenty of hacked-off body parts here to satisfy the most lurid of tastes. The fourth victim is a geologist, whose head has been neatly placed atop the television set in his hotel room. He was a British national, so Drew MacLeish, a senior CID officer, is dispatched 5,000 miles from his beloved Manchester to assist Nergui, and to reassure the media that something is being done about a British death in this remotest of parts.

Seen through Drew's eyes, Mongolia is a cross between a still-tribal existence, where a suburb of Ulan Baator consists of felt tents, and a geological Wild West where foreign businesses and scientists search for concessions in the lucrative mining areas. Gold is especially sought-after. The portrait of a fledgling nation struggling to assert a new identity is vividly done, and the political intrigues which Nergui must navigate are chilling and convincing - with an unflattering portrait of a cynical British ambassador. Nergui himself is an attractive character, with a subtle intelligence.

Soon the detectives are heading for an assignation deep in the Gobi desert, a surreal location where a holiday camp provides a vast beach experience, minus the sea. Foreign tourists, weary Western oilmen and sundry sinister characters gather for R&R, the bolder swigging fermented mare's milk and vodka served by waiters in traditional crimson robes. The influx of Westerners has created problems with the locals, such as clashes over gold-mining, adding another dimension to the mystery of the murder. Another death, of a policeman, makes it even more urgent to find a solution.

Back in the city, Drew has got himself kidnapped. Desperately searching Ulan Baator for him, Nerui locates a nasty collection of severed limbs: is Manchester's finest still intact? Walters cuts between the search and the gagged victim with nail-biting skill, although this is his first novel. It's a complex book, but compulsive reading, and the descriptions of Mongolia are richly enjoyable. I look forward to another bloodthirsty visit with Nergui as my guide.