A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong

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 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

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I heard the music

FullSizeRender-1The colonial architecture along the Bund is even more impressive now than it (probably) was when Chen Cao saw it :

FullSizeRender-2And the tai chi still goes on…

4

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.

And food.

And tea.

 

Highly recommended.

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:

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.

If this review tempts you to read this book (and you should, it is a great read!!) it couldn’t be easier. Just click on the link below :