This is a small thing, but intriguing (to me) because of the various strands it potentially connects. Background:

This past June, I heard about a new spy thriller called Typhoon, by the well-established UK writer Charles Cumming. It was set in China, so I put it into my "here's another way to learn about the country" mental in-basket. Its fictional time frame was the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Since that was the real-world time frame in which I then lived, it moved up on my mentalĀ  "books I should read soon" list.

Typhoon3.jpg

Better still, the plot apparently involved something I'd been reading and thinking about, and which was an important ongoing theme in internal Chinese news coverage: the possibility of separatist or disruptive activities by the Muslim Uighur population of China's far-northwestern Xinjiang region. The Chinese press portrayed this as the main "terrorist" threat to the Olympics, justifying tight security measures. In the novel, apparently the CIA was working with the Uighurs to stir things up. Hmmmm!

Could I buy this at a book store in Beijing? Not likely -- less for censorship reasons than because of the limited number of books that ever make their way here. So I checked online. I didn't find it from any of the normal US sources. But it was being published in England first, and Amazon.co.uk had it in stock.

I ordered a copy: 9.99 pounds for the book, 7.98 pounds for postage, and that when the pound was worth about $2. Part of the cost of expatriation. Order confirmed, book shipped to Beijing. And then... it never arrived.

Amazon.uk said it had indeed sent the book. The Royal Mail tracing service seemed to confirm that fact. Yet on the Chinese end, nothing got here. Hmmm again. But this is not so unusual with mail in and out of China. Things just get lost

Amazon.uk issued a full refund. Gracious of them. And I thought, I'll get this the next time I travel to the outside world.

So I went to America that autumn -- and still didn't find the book in any US stores or sites. Had no trips planned to England, so didn't try to pick it up there. For family reasons, kept going back to the US every few weeks. Kept checking. Never saw it.

Today I thought: let's find this book! And now I see it in stock on the Amazon.uk site for 42 pounds (ok, 41.99) and two copies on the main US Amazon site for either $75 or $247.87. What the hell???

I'm almost curious enough to buy the book at these inflated prices to get a clue about what is going on. Almost. But I can't help wondering why this book's marketing history is so odd.

Why, despite generally positive comments and reviews, has it seemingly vanished from circulation? Why, unlike numerous other books by the same author, did it never successfully cross the Atlantic to be published in the US? Why on earth are re-sellers now offering it for 4x to 10x its original price? None of this makes apparent sense.

I am very skeptical that mailroom censors would have kept the book from reaching me in Beijing. Far more obviously "sensitive" printed matter - in English - comes into the country every day. I had been reading the highly controversial Jon Halliday-Jung Chang Mao biography on one interminable Newark-Beijing flight. I absentmindedly kept it in my hand as I walked through the customs and immigration gates in Beijing. No one gave it a second glance. (General point: the authorities don't really care what non-Chinese citizens are reading in languages other than Chinese. More here.) Casual screwup is the more likely explanation.

But the book's fate in the English-language markets is puzzling to me. Has it been, in some way, suppressed? Did US or UK officials somehow signal that it would make trouble if left on the market? That's hard to imagine, but other explanations seem farfetched too. If anyone has the book and can offer a hypothesis, I'd be glad to hear it. And I'll buy it from you on my next trip home, for something less than $247.87.

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