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Bitter Harvest

Susan Spano is a Times staff writer

Lisa See, whose first book, “On Gold Mountain” (1995), was a work of nonfiction about her own sprawling Chinese American family, has absorbed the history, culture and politics of China like a true Sinophile. Two years ago she wrote “Flower Net,” a debut thriller that was nominated for a best first mystery Edgar Award. She created an engaging character--Inspector Liu Hulan--and a setting--China--with authority and vividness. So the prospect of a second thriller by See, featuring Liu (now carrying the child of her lover from “Flower Net,” David Stark) and set, again, largely in China can only be welcome.

Everything See knows from visiting the country or reading about in newspapers--from daily life in the winding alleyways of Beijing to recent bestsellers (like “China Can Say No,” urging the Chinese people to reject American materialism)--has gone into “The Interior” with sometimes forced but more often tonic effects.

See’s picture of contemporary China’s relationship with the United States is aptly played out through her characters. And her divided loyalties (voiced in the book by Liu, who lived through the Cultural Revolution but loves her country, and by idealistic flag-waving David) are understandable. In “The Interior,” the two countries are locked in a love-hate relationship (“One minute they’re friends,” Liu says, “the next minute they’re enemies”), each tapping cliches and ignorance to demonize the other, as Liu and David themselves are pitted against one another in an attempt to expose crime and corruption in a central China toy factory.

Almost everybody in the book--except Liu and David--is a villain or, at least, deeply flawed. This is a fairly sophisticated premise for a thriller because thriller writers usually do a good deal of one-sided demonizing themselves to make their plots rock. See’s writing is more graceful than is common in the genre, and she still has China, passionately observed. So in the end, as Liu and David settle down in Beijing, battered and embittered, you’re left hoping that the Chinese New Year will bring them not only better luck and a healthy baby but a new, more carefully contrived crime to solve in a future book.

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