Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

It was my son’s moving to Shanghai with his job that prompted my fearsomely well-read sister to recommend the Chief Inspector Chen mysteries, and having just concluded the third in the series, back to back, I am beyond hooked.

 

And as soon as I have written my reviews, I shall promptly start on the next book in the series.

There is always something delicious about recognising names and places in a book, so to read these books in Shanghai, as I did, was even more exciting. But even without the “being there” thrill of these novels, Qiu Xiaolong’s books offer a wonderful insight into China in the early 1990s, as the country grappled with huge, rapid changes. Prior to our trip to Shanghai last week, we had last visited the city in 1992 and then 1993, which is exactly the time of these novels.

 

So, yes, as you may have gathered, I am a fan.

The first in the Chief Inspector Chen murder mysteries is “Death of a Red Heroine” in which we meet the poetry loving, English-speaking, thoughtful policeman who is clearly on the road to great things in the emerging China, but is more than a little uncomfortable about the choices and the realities of politics vs police work vs his beloved writing.

Chen Cao is a fascinating man, and as he heads the investigation into the murder of a model worker, you admire his determination to get at the truth, however uncomfortable that truth may be for him personally and for his political bosses.  He is a man uniquely positioned at the crossroads in his country and his city, and his doubts and misgivings make him all the more human and eminently likeable.

The insights into Shanghai life and living are an eye-opener, and we feel privileged to see the city from an insider’s unvarnished perspective – the cramped housing, the packed buses, the privileged life of the HCCs (High Cadres’ Children) who lead a life in a parallel universe to the hard-working, underpaid policemen. The children of senior party official live in beautiful homes, have access to every conceivable luxury, and generally consider themselves to be a breed apart, well above the law.
It is into this rarified world that Chief Inspector Chen Cao’s investigation leads him.

Mr Qiu writes in English, his second language, and all I can say is, hats off to him.

The writing style isn’t particularly scintillating, but the story line is so powerful and compelling that you are swept along. Mr. Qiu write about the politics of the disastrous Cultural Revolution, about the educated youths whose lives were turned upside down and very often ruined, by their years of enforced living in the villages. All of this woven into a murder investigation whose ramifications lead Chan and his older, loyal but slightly resentful No. 2, Inspector Yu, into uncharted political territory.

The noise and the crowds of Shanghai, the streets, the bicycles, the heat and the food – oh, the food – are vividly depicted, and as you read, you feel you are right there in that fabulous city.  I was actually lucky enough to be there when I read this novel, but the story is so strong that it speaks across geographical boundaries.

Mixing politics with police work (and lots of food) in an emerging China means “Death of a Red Heroine” is so much more than just a murder mystery.  It is mystery + politics +social commentary + yes, lots and lots of food.

A great read, and I am just a little sad that it has taken me all these years to discover such a great writer. But better late etc etc.

Published in 2000.

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