I spent some time checking my e-mail and looking at the available books. What I found is one that Chip Hauss has been urging me to read for years: When Red is Black by Qiu Xiaolong.
While When Red is Black is a police procedural set in Shanghai, the book is really about social, political, and economic change in China during the 1990s. The title gives that away if you're more aware than I was about the labels people were given during the Cultural Revolution. Of course, during that time, to be labeled "red" meant you were political hero. To be labeled "black" was the ultimate of political incorrectness. That designation led to humiliation, persecution, imprisonment, and death. In the 1990s, the labels persisted, but the meanings had switched. Heroes of the Cultural Revolution were obstacles to the achievements of the Four Modernizations and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics (otherwise known as crony capitalism).
The main characters are a Chief Inspector and a Detective charged by their political boss with finding out who killed a dissident (Red) writer and avoiding any bad publicity for the Party and the state. The political boss, whom Chief Inspector Chen might someday succeed, is more interested in a problemless resolution than justice. Chen and Detective Yu have other priorities. In the meantime, the two honest, patriotic, and hardworking cops are tempted by the changes going on around them and confronted with the political changes they see.
Chief Inspector Chen gets a commission from a successful real estate developer with mob connections to translate a proposal for American investors. Detective Yu has a real apartment he'd been assigned to taken away by the bureaucrats at the last minute. Chen begins benefiting from his connection with cheap appliances and an alluring young "little secretary." Yu's wife completes her month-long accounting job in a week and contemplates ways of making money in the other three weeks. The bankrupt state enterprise that Chen's mother worked for suddenly finds money to pay for her hospital bills. And Chen comes into possession of a manuscript by a talented "black" author who died during the Cultural Revolution.
The problem with the book is that even for me, who is interested in the history, the changes, and the politics, the telling of the story plods on ever so slowly. Ironically (?) one of the books discussed in the story is frequently criticized for including too much detail and "inside baseball" trivia. Guess what? When Red is Black includes too much detail and trivia. It seemed to me that every character was given the chance to ruminate about his or her actions and then go on to act. It just took too long to tell the story, even with the considerations of change in China.
So, don't expect a rip-roaring adventure. Not only is there reflection and detail, there's also lots of poetry -- well, just lines of poetry most of the time, but the Chinese characters seem to have memorized hundreds of poems and regularly find appropriate circumstances for quoting old poetry. What should I have expected when the author is a poet?
If you're interested in a change of pace mystery or in China or in cultural/political change or in ways people deal with massive change and if you're patient, this book might be one you'll like.
When you've read it, you can write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of When Red is Black by Qiu Xiaolong.
- Virginia's review at Divine Caroline
- Zoltaire's review in the Seattle Post Intelligencer
- Maxim Jakubowski's review in The Guardian (UK)