I am not sure at which point enthusiasm becomes embarrassing, but I’m going to risk it anyway.
In Shanghai last week to visit my son who works there, I re-read all the Inspector Chen novels with great pleasure.
As I have said before in other book reviews, there is nothing quite like being in the very place you are reading about. It’s all to do with the delightful, insider feeling of “Ah yes, I know exactly where that street/building/park is…”
And thus it was, when I found myself, early one misty April morning, in the little park on the Bund where Inspector Chen comes across a body, that I felt seriously excited.
I knew exactly where the action took place.
I, too, was there in the cool pre-dawn mist, listening to the clock tower chime, watching people practice tai-chi…yes, I should probably stop right here, before this all becomes too gushing.
For the record, the Bund Park is now way smaller than it was in the early 1990s, the time of the novel, but there I was at the Waibaidu end of the park:
“and its back gate connected with the Waibaidu Bridge, a name that remained unchanged since its completion in the colonial era, meaning literally Foreign White Crossing Bridge…”
I heard the music:
“On the cool April breeze, a melody wafted over from the big clock atop the Shanghai Customs Building. Six thirty. It had played another tune during the Cultural Revolution: ‘The East is Red’. Time flowed like water…”
The colonial architecture along the Bund is even more impressive now than it (probably) was when Chen Cao saw it :
“Along Zhongshan Road, a long vista of magnificent buildings, which had once housed the most prestigious Western companies in the early part of the century and then Communist Party institutions after 1950, were now welcoming back those Western companies in an effort to reclaim the Bund’s status as China’s Wall Street.”
And the tai chi still goes on…
“Chief Inspector Chen wondered what he might have become had he persisted in practicing. Perhaps he would now be like that tai chi devotee, wearing a white silk martial arts costume, loose-sleeved, red-silk-buttoned, with a peaceful expression on his face. Chen knew him. An accountant in an almost bankrupt state-run company, yet at that moment, a master moving in perfect harmony with the ‘qi’ of the universe.”
Chief Inspector Chen is an eminently likeable man. A bachelor, an intellectual, a man who does his duty as a policeman even though it might oftentimes run counter to the all-important political needs of The Party. He is something of an enigma to his colleagues – a quiet, low-key, almost-reluctant policeman, who would rather be writing poetry much of the time. This air of impenetrability around Chief Inspector Chen means that it is all the more to the credit of his assistant Detective Yu, that the latter trusts him so instinctively, and watches his back at every twist and turn.
Inspector Yu is a wonderful character. No jolly side-kick here, but an older, poorly paid man whose youth was wasted by the Cultural Revolution, leaving him stuck without an education in a low-paying job. His initial resentment of his younger, intellectual, better-paid boss has all but evaporated now, and even though he cannot always fathom his boss, he admires him and is fiercely loyal.
There is a death and a missing person in this book, but neither we nor the Shanghai police are sure whether they are connected.
What is fascinating about the Chief Inspector Chen books is not simply the whodunnit aspects of the stories, but also their setting – Shanghai in the early 1990s, with the memory of Tiananmen still fresh in everyone’s minds, and the gradual, tentative emergence of capitalism, despite the strong grip The Party, Internal Security and the all-powerful state holds over the country.
Chen Cao is a man caught in the midst of these changes. Young enough to have escaped the ravages and the waste of the Cultural Revolution – a theme that is a leitmotif through Qiu Xiaolong’s writing – and a man seen by the party to have a future, and treated accordingly, he is nevertheless a government employee on a paltry salary, battling his way on and off hot, over-crowded buses and metros, and often amazed by the way the other half lives.
Chen Cao is deputed to accompany an American marshal, Catherine Rohn, who is coming to Shanghai to escort the wife of a Chinese man the Americans have in a witness protection programme. Feng Dexiang is thought to be involved in human trafficking to the US, but has decided to cooperate with the Americans to save his skin – but won’t talk unless his wife, Wen Liping joins him. So Inspector Rohn, a pretty blonde Chinese speaking young woman, has been sent out to escort Wen to the US.
Except, Wen cannot be found.
And that is all I am going to tell you, otherwise it will spoil the plot for you.
There is travel to Fujian province in search of Wen, there are long train journeys, there is food galore, there is the barest hint of romance, and there is the totally fascinating, ever-evolving city of Shanghai, with its karaoke bars and banquets, its desperate housing shortage and traffic jams, with its tea houses and, as long as we have Chen Cao as our likeable hero, lots of poetry.
Lots and lots of poetry.
Published originally by Soho Press, 01 Sep 2003
If this review has encouraged you to read the book for yourself (and I hope it has) you can buy it here and now: