I’m delighted to offer an exclusive excerpt from an upcoming historical novel out May 28. THE CORPSE READER by Antonio Garrido is inspired by Song Cí, who was considered to be the founding father of CSI-style forensic science in thirteenth-century China. This historical thriller is drawing comparisons to The Hangman's Daughter for its absorbing details of another time and received the Zaragoza International Prize for best historical novel published in Spain in 2012.
In ancient China during the Song Dynasty only a select few ever reach the coveted title of "corpse reader," a forensic elite force which, even at the risk of their own lives, has a mandate that no death go unsolved and no crime go unpunished. Cí Song is the first of those elite few. Envied for his pioneering methods, and persecuted by his peers, he arouses the curiosity of the emperor himself, who assigns Ci to track a series of heinous crimes that threaten to destroy the imperial court. But as Ci delves deeper into the mysterious deaths, there are those who will do anything to silence him—forever.
Excerpted from THE CORPSE READER by Antonio Garrido
Copyright 2013. Published By AmazonCrossing.
Cí got up early that morning to avoid running into his brother Lu. He could barely pry his eyes open, but he knew that, like every morning, the paddy field would be awake and waiting.
He got up and began putting away his bedding, smelling the tea his mother was brewing in the main room. He entered the room and greeted her with a nod. She replied with a half-hidden smile that he noticed nonetheless, and he smiled in return.
He adored his mother almost as much as he did his little sister, whose name was Third. His other sisters, First and Second, had died very young from a genetic disease. Third was the only one who had managed to survive, though she remained sickly.
Before breakfast, he went over to the small altar the family had erected in memory of his grandfather. He opened the wooden shutters and inhaled deeply. Outside, the first rays of sun were filtering delicately through the fog. The breeze moved through the chrysanthemums in the offering jar and stirred the spirals of incense rising in the room. Cí closed his eyes to recite a prayer, but the only thought that came into his mind was this: Heavenly spirits, allow us to return to Lin’an.
He cast his mind back to when his grandparents were still alive. This backwater had been paradise to him then, and to his brother Lu, who was four years his elder, his hero. Any child would have worshipped Lu. Lu was like the great soldier in their father’s stories, always coming to Cí’s rescue when other children tried to steal his fruit rations, always there to deal with shameless men who tried to flirt with his sisters. Lu had even shown him how to win a fight using certain kicks and punches. He’d taken him down to the river to splash around among the boats and to fish for carp and trout, which they’d then carry home in jubilation. He had also shown Cí the best hiding places from which to spy on their neighbors.
As Lu got older, though, he became vain. At fifteen, he was stronger than ever, as well as boastful, and was unimpressed with anything other than a good right hook. Lu began organizing cat hunts so he could show off in front of the girls. He’d get drunk on stolen rice liquor and crow about how he was the strongest in the gang. He became so arrogant that even when girls were making fun of him he thought they just wanted his attention. Eventually, all the girls began avoiding Lu, and Cí gradually became indifferent to his former idol, too.
In spite of everything, Lu had generally managed to steer clear of any serious trouble, apart from the occasional black eye from fighting or from riding the community buffalo in the water races. But when their father announced his intention to move to the capital city of Lin’an, Lu, who was sixteen at the time, refused to go. Lu didn’t want to move to any city; he was happy in the countryside. In his eyes, the small village had everything: the paddy field, his braggart group of friends, even a few local prostitutes for his amusement. Although his father threatened to disown him, Lu refused to back down. So that year the family split up: Lu stayed in the village and the rest of them moved to the capital, in search of a better future.
Cí had found it difficult adjusting to Lin’an life, though he had a routine. He was up every morning with the sun to check on his sister. He’d make her breakfast and look after her until their mother came back from the market. Having wolfed down his bowl of rice, he’d go to classes until midday, and after that he would run all the way to the slaughterhouse to help his father in his job clearing away carcasses. In the evening, after cleaning the kitchen and praying to his ancestors, he studied the Confucian treatises for recitation in class the next morning. Month after month this was his life. But one day, everything changed. His father left the slaughterhouse and got a job as an accountant for the prefecture of Lin’an under Judge Feng, one of the wisest magistrates in the capital.
Life improved rapidly. The salary his father was now earning meant that Cí, too, could give up the slaughterhouse and dedicate himself to his studies. Thanks to excellent grades, after four years in school Cí was given a junior position in Judge Feng’s department. To begin with, he was given straightforward administrative tasks, but his dedication and attention to detail set him apart, and the judge himself decided to take the now seventeen-year-old under his wing.
Cí showed himself worthy of Judge Feng’s confidence. After just a few months he began assisting in taking statements, interviewing suspects, and preparing and cleaning the corpses of anybody who died under suspicious circumstances. It wasn’t long before his meticulousness, combined with his obvious talents, made him a key employee, and the judge gave him more responsibility. Cí ended up helping with criminal investigations and legal disputes, and thus learned both the fundamentals of law and the basics of anatomy.
Cí also attended university part time, and in his second year Judge Feng encouraged him to take a preparatory course in medicine. According to the judge, the clues to a great many crimes lay hidden in wounds. To solve them you had to develop not a magistrate’s but rather a surgeon’s understanding of trauma. Everything was going well until, one night, Cí’s grandfather suddenly fell ill and died. After the funeral, as was dictated by Chinese custom, his father was obliged to give up his job as well as the house they had been living in, since the owner, Cí’s grandfather, was dead. Without a home or work, the family had to return to the village, the last thing Cí wanted to do.
They came back to a very different Lu. He had built a house on a plot of land he’d acquired, and he was the boss of a small crew of laborers. When his father came knocking at his door, the first thing Lu did, before he would allow him to cross the threshold, was make him get down on his knees and apologize. He made their father sleep in one of the tiny bedrooms, rather than give up his own, and treated Cí with the same disinterest. Soon after, when Lu realized his younger brother no longer worshipped him and cared only for books, Cí became the target of all Lu’s anger. A man showed his true value out in the fields, Lu maintained. That was where your daily rice came from, not from books, not from studying. In Lu’s eyes, his younger brother was a twenty-year-old good-for-nothing, just one more mouth to feed. Cí’s life became little more than a series of criticisms, and he quickly came to hate the village…
A gust of wind brought Cí back to the present.
Going back into the main room, he ran into Lu, who was at the table beside their mother, slurping his tea. Seeing Cí, he spat on the floor and banged his cup down on the table. Without waiting for their father to wake up, he grabbed his bundle of work things and headed out.
“No manners,” muttered Cí, taking a cloth and wiping up the tea his brother had just spilled.
“And you should learn some respect,” said his mother. “We’re living in his home, after all. The strong home—”
“I know, I know. ‘The strong home supports a brave father, prudent mother, obedient son, and obliging brother.’” He didn’t need to be reminded of the saying. Lu was quite fond of it.
Cí laid the table with the bamboo place mats and bowls; this was supposed to be Third’s job, but recently her chest illness had been getting worse. Cí didn’t mind filling in for her. According to ritual, he lined up the bowls, making sure there was an even number of them, and he turned the teapot so that its spout pointed toward the window. He placed the rice wine, porridge, and carp meatballs in the center of the table. He cast his eyes over the kitchen and the cracked sink all black with carbon. It looked more like a dilapidated forge than a home.
Soon, his father hobbled in. Cí felt a stab of sadness.
How he’s aged.
Cí frowned and tensed his jaw. His father’s health was deteriorating: He moved shakily; his gaze was lowered and his sparse beard looked like some unpicked tapestry. There was barely a shred left of the meticulous official he had been, the man who had bred in Cí such a love of method and perseverance. Cí noticed that his father’s hands, which he used to take such care of, were anemic looking, rough and callused. He imagined his father must miss the time when his hands had to be immaculate—the days he’d spent examining judicial dossiers, doing proper work.
Cí’s father sat at the head of the table, motioning for Cí and his mother to sit as well. Cí went to his place, and his mother took her seat on the side closest to the kitchen. She served the rice wine. Third didn’t join them because of her fever.
“Will you be eating with us this evening, Cí?” his mother asked.
“After all this time, Judge Feng will be delighted to see you again.”
Cí wouldn’t have missed it for anything. He didn’t know why exactly, but his father had decided to curtail the mourning period and return to Lin’an. Cí was hoping Judge Feng would agree to take him back into the department.
“Lu said I have to take the buffalo up to the new plot, and after that I was thinking of stopping in on Cherry, but I’ll be back in time for dinner.”
“Twenty years old and still so naive,” said his father. “That girl has you wrapped around her finger. You’ll get bored of her if you carry on seeing so much of each other.”
“Cherry’s the only good thing about this village,” said Cí, eating his last mouthful of food. “Anyway, you were the ones who arranged the marriage.”
“Take the sweets I made with you,” said his mother.
Cí got up and put the sweets in his bag. Before leaving the house, he went into Third’s quarters, kissed her feverish cheeks, and tucked her hair back. She blinked. Cí took out the sweets and hid them under her blanket.
“Not a word!” he whispered.
She smiled, too weak to say anything.
Excerpted from THE CORPSE READER by Antonio Garrido, Copyright 2013. Published By AmazonCrossing.