06 February 2009

Shanghai Mystery

A few weeks ago, Chip Hauss mentioned that he and his wife were reading their ways through a series of mystery novels by Qui Xiaolong, and that they liked the books.

Qui Xiaolong [right] teaches Chinese literature at Washington University in St. Louis. He was born in Shanghai and has lived in the US since 1989. I'd guess he was a student here in June of '89 who chose not to return to China after the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and massacre.

When I couldn't find any of his books at any of the local libraries, I ordered his first novel, Death of a Red Heroine from Amazon.com (not to be confused with Minneapolis' Amazon Book Store).

I liked it.

It's an ambitious book for a murder mystery (well, actually, it's a police procedural if you want to be picky) -- over 450 pages long; set in Shanghai (familiar to the author, but an alien world to me); full of political and cultural references (that gave me new insights into the politics and society of China); featuring a self-observant protagonist who finds himself in a moral dilemma; and including a complex plot that is revealed bit by appropriate bit.

I suppose it's natural for such a long, involved story, but I did nearly lose interest a couple times along the way. But as I finished the book, I appreciated the changes of pace in the story telling.

The pictures of life in China are not pretty -- although Qiu manages to express pride in his homeland and describe nobility in the Chinese people, in spite of their poverty and hardships.

The main character, Chen, was a scholar of literature who has been assigned to be a cop. He's risen to the rank of Chief Inspector, just high enough in the system to rub elbows with Communist Party politics in serious ways. As Qui portrays it, life at that level is lot like life in a junior high school run by the popular and muscular students. Ugh!

Oh, and it's a romance. Chen has a complicated relationship with a married "girlfriend" and a romance he abandoned in Beijing for political reasons. (That romance plays a larger and larger role as the plot proceeds.)

This is not just a story about finding evidence to solve a murder. It's also a story of the political education of Chief Inspector Chen, and it's the story of how Chen's moral dilemmas complicate his search for parallels with classic poets and the politics he learned in school.

I didn't just like this book. I liked it a lot.

If you read it, let us know what you think.

1 comment:

Chip Hauss said...

As Ken suggests, I've read all or most of the Inspector Chen novels. I also write about Chinese politics a bit, and these are great books for that.

Readers should also consider Jennifer 8 Lee (yes her middle name is 8 and means beautiful) Fortune Cookie Chronicles which is more about Chinese American culture. Lee is a reporter and blogger at the NY Times.