01 June 2010

Mystery set in China

Way back when, Chip Hauss recommended the mysteries written by Qiu Xiaolong. He's a comparative literature professor in St. Louis who has lived in the US since 1989. (Do you remember why that date is significant?)

Qiu's novels are good. They are also filled with poetic references, most of which I miss. In A Loyal Character Dancer, the only one I caught for sure was on the last page. It was a reference to one of my favorite lines from T. S. Eliot's The Wasteland. No matter. The story is good even if the telling seems slow because of all the poetic references, quotations, and descriptions.

The story has its origins in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) when just about everything was turned upside down and inside out. It was a time for true believers, like the woman who is the focus of the story. She was a dedicated Red Guard who gladly went to learn from the peasants. As a "loyal character dancer," she held aloft symbols of her dedication to Chairman Mao while heading for life among the poorest of peasants. It was also a time for opportunistic characters like the man who raped and later married her.

The contemporary story involves Chinese organized crime, the triads that have recreated themselves in the economic chaos of "socialism with Chinese characteristics." These guys are the opportunistic characters of today.

The plot involves the police work of Qiu's Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau and U.S. Marshall Catherine Rohn who are assigned the task of finding the former Red Guard and sending her safely to the U. S. Interestingly, like Qiu, both Inspector Chen and Marshall Rohn "majored" in literature as undergraduates. Rohn speaks some Chinese and knows some Chinese literature; Chen has studied Western and Chinese poetry. That sets the stage for insider quips and quotes most of which meant nothing to me.

In spite of the poetic interruptions, the story is well told. The main characters are intriguing, and if the forbidden romance of the priest and the lawyer in Margaret Coel's novels is interesting, the forbidden romance between the Chinese Inspector and the American Marshall is, I think, more interesting. So, I recommend A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong. If you read or have read it, write and tell this little bit of the world what you think (thought) of it. And in the poetic reference contest, you can point out those references I missed.

Profile of Qiu Xiaolong at January Magazine

Sudheer Apte's review of A Loyal Character Dancer at Mostly Fiction

Charles Foran's review at Asian Review of Books

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