The first book in the Inspector Chen series (followed by A Loyal Character Dancer) is a spellbinding meld detective procedural and portrait of China in transition following the Tiananmen Square massacre. Set in Shanghai in the Spring of 1990, the story starts with the discovery of the body of a "national model worker." The case falls into the hands newly promoted Det. Inspector Chen Cao and his subordinate Detective Yu, who work under the watchful eyes of old Commissar Zhang and Party Secretary Li.
Communist China makes for an instantly compelling and intriguing setting, as the police must wend their way through labyrinthine political considerations in a country where one's standing in the Party is paramount but change is clearly underway. The mystery and investigation proceed in a leisurely fashion, and the true challenge is not identifying the murderer, but being able to gather the necessary evidence and piecing together a motive.
Inspector Chen and Detective Yu are instantly likable and deeply-drawn characters, as is their circle of friends and family. Woven into the story are the their personal lives, which the author uses to paint a vivid picture of China just a decade ago. Most memorable are the cramped housing conditions, the continued reverence for elders, and the many many mouthwatering descriptions of food. Hardest to imagine for Western readers will be the influence of Party standing and its intrusion into personal relationships, especially when it comes to love.
This is a long, but never boring story that deserves wide readership amongst mystery readers as well as those with an interest in China. A well-deserved winner of the Edgar for best first novel.
I bought this book having read a review, but not knowing quite what to expect.
It is more police procedural than golden age. There is a murder, and it is central to the plot, but there is very little real detective work described.
The book is well-written and very discursive: there are descriptions of food, relationships, a great deal about China in the 1990s and how the Party works and - for me the best bit - a great deal of poetry. The main character, Chief Inspector Chen, is a poet (and translator of crime novels) as well as a detective. This creates many opportunities for the author to insert couplets or (rarely) longer excerpts from Chinese poetry in a very natural, charming and unpretentious way. I have certainly sought out Chinese poetry as a result of what I read in this book.
Fans of crime fiction will enjoy this fresh angle on the genre, which combines the classic cop story with the complexities of 1990s Chinese politics. The main character is Cheif Inspector Chen, a rising star in the Communist party, who finds himself in a difficult position when he begins investigating the murder of 'national model worker'.
Although the novel has a slowish start and contains plenty of references to poetry, it's very readable even though I wouldn't call it gripping. It's a gentle, careful, subtle novel - very different from the majority of action packed crime thrillers. It's a lot more beliveable for that, even if it isn't as heart-in-the-mouth to read as others.
I felt that this book gave me a better understanding of Chinese culture and politics than any other book set in the region has done so far. Even despite the surface signs of economic and social reform, the constraints on the characters are very clear. The cast of characters is strong and all were interesting or likable, and the story came together well.
This book proves that a good crime novel need not be full of gory corpses, car chases and shoot outs in order to be a good read. A must for anyone interested in China as well as those who enjoy crime writing, and likely to be enjoyed by most other readers as well.
on 6 March 2013
When inspector Chen is called to investigate the finding of a dead woman in a backwater, he doesn't know that his career can come to an end. The victim is a dead "national moder worker", a person who is displayed by the Communist Party as a role model. Then all is routine investigation: interviewing people, adding two and two... What Chen doesn't expect is that the Communist Party doesn't want any negative propaganda, even in the search of truth and justice.
The best thing in the novel is the depcition of the late communist period, during Deng Xiaoping. The Party still ruled, but had started a "lighter hand" approach and with capitalist reforms. Then you can see how deep the Party control on people was, deciding on their studies, work, partner, way of life, private life. The senior Communist Party members were a caste appart, that didn't mingle withe the lower segments of society, that enjoyed what others couldn't. That is what makes this novel more interesting.
Appart from that, the narrative is peaceful to the point of being slow (perhaps something is lost in traslation), and the criminal investigation is used as a tapestry for social and political criticism.
Nothing extraordinary, but not a bad try for a beginner, either.
on 24 January 2016
As a crime novel, the mood that it conveys is rather unusual. It is not a thriller that gives you a fright. There is not much action that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Nor is there much violence to make you squirm. It has sex, sexually suggestive scenes, and obscenity (relating to the crime and evidence under concern, therefore unsuitable for kids). The mood for this crime novel is surprisingly - calm! It does not take you on a roller coaster at all. The novel is narrated in a strangely subdued kind of way.
I suppose the main protagonist - Chief Inspector Chen - is a rather unusual character. He is a poet and sees everything in the taint through his poetic perception. Solving crimes is like the sideline rather than the main theme. His mind is full of poems. This makes him a rather unusual inspector, quite unlike the kind we are used to. Therefore whether he makes a convincing inspector is subject to individual opinion. One could however argue that the mismatch reflects something of the Chinese society - more often than not, people are not assigned to posts that suit them. It is people's life to try their best to make themselves fit into the mismatched situations.
The success of the book is not in the crime solving (one could say this is its downfall as a crime novel?), but in its depiction of the relationship between the people and the state. This aspect of the novel can be an eye-opener to the westerners who have never experienced communism and a one-party rule. It is an irony that communism with the ideological goal of equality and equal opportunity leads to a society equally unequal and perhaps more oppressive than previously. The truth is once you get the power, you want to keep hold of it. It only replaces one privileged class with another. Family background is more important, not less, under the communist rule, albeit with a different set of assessment rules, which keeps changing according to the political tide. I think the book is successful in throwing up a lot of the contradictions and ironies in the system and the society, The Chinese people portrayed are stoical to the point of being poignant. Even when Inspector Chen was "in trouble", there was no anger, irritation or frustration; there were only worries. Before Chen was "in trouble", there was sarcasm. That was all. I suppose setting in the year after the Tienanmen Massacre, there couldn't be a critical spirit in one's thought. I don't know if this is the intention of the author.
The book portrays convincingly how extensively the state and politics are in shaping daily decisions of the people. That the Big Brother is watching is very real. The pressure is such that people lead a double life and almost all have some sort of secrets to hide. This is clearly manifested in the murder victim and the murderer and most of the witnesses thereafter. The scariest reality is that you could be the model, up and coming, star in the hierarchy but overnight, that fate could be turned and you could be condemned. There is no absolute or certainty. It all depends on the whims of some senior officials sitting remotely away, and you can one day be in the right and the next day in the wrong. The age old dilemma that if one higher up would like to take you down, you are guilty before they find a charge, and they will find one. This happens with Inspector Chen - he was a rising star and then he was "in trouble". His friend advised Inspector Chen to quit and lead a life of easy conscience. This can be an attitude - focus on making money which is afforded by the opportunities, and turn away from politics which constantly wrench your conscience. The ending once again is that poignancy about the power of the state. The murderer was sentenced but not for the crime that he had committed. Instead his charge was one that Inspector Chen could also have been accused of if the state knew what he had done. Is this justice done? Does it matter? These are profound questions that are thrown up by the book.
Another characteristics of this book is its numerous references to Chinese classic and poetry. One may say that this is its strength. I think it could be a weakness. Using connotations from Chinese classic and poems which the reader is not familiar with does not enrich the narrative but does the opposite. The author should appreciate that most western readers are not as knowledgeable as he in Chinese classic and poems. Therefore the relationships and the message are lost with the clueless reader, as it is not sufficiently self-explanatory in the text. This greatly reduces the enjoyment of the reader in reading the book, and makes it read rather disjointed. If these references are occasional, it wouldn't have been a problem. But in this book, it is the main style of narrative and prose. I therefore suspect that a lot is lost in the conveyance of the story that the author has in his mind in the first place. This is regrettable.
As a detective story, there are a couple of brilliant places where the team had to communicate in code, and they used the connotations in specific poems. Again, if you do not know these poems and background, it is hard to appreciate to its full. But I grant that the system should work and in a rather stylish way too. The case is a bit underwhelming. I would have thought the murderer with his background and power would have done something more to protect himself and would go all out offensive in order to defend himself. That would have created more action and suspense that propelled the story. But no the criminal didn't counteract. Therefore there is an imbalance in the development of goodies and baddies in the book. The baddie is portrayed rather remotely and second-handedly through what the investigation reveals. There is no new development in the character of the baddie at all.
Towards the end, the force that the goodies are up against was the state, the central party and politics,and not the individuals.
I won't rush out to buy the next one in the series, although it will be interesting to find out how the main characters develop and if the author matures as a writer of detective story or produces one of the same.
Chinese poet, translator, and fiction writer Qiu Xiaolong has created in Inspector Chen of Shanghai, a kind of alterego, a poet who is also a policeman of impeccable honesty, a man who must walk the fine line between obeying the sometimes expedient desires of Party officials or doing what he sees as "right" in broader, less political terms. The hero of a series of six mysteries, Inspector Chen recognizes that his own privileges, including a private apartment, may be taken away instantly if he offends those of high rank. In this first novel of the series, Inspector Chen and his assistant Yu investigate the murder of a "Red Heroine," a young woman who has achieved the status of a national model because she has worked so diligently at the biggest department store in Shanghai for ten years.
It is the early 1990s, and the victim, Guan, has been found dead, miles from Shanghai. Frequently mentioned in national newspapers, Guan has also been featured on TV, and the higher-ups in the party are determined to suppress news of her murder. Before long, Chen and his men have identified a suspect - an HCC, a "high cadre's child," the son of an important party official - the Shanghai Minister of Propaganda. Accorded many privileges granted purely on the basis of his parents' achievements, the suspect, Wu Xiaoming, works as a photographer for Red Star but is already being considered for a prestigious new position.
As the various characters are introduced, the author also reveals aspects of the Chinese political milieu and the limitations it presents for Chen and his future. Walking a tight line, Chen exercises discretion, while also pursuing the case. A true believer in the goals of the Party, Chen resents the tendency of some officials to put political expediency ahead of the ideals of the revolution. Author Qiu succeeds, however, in creating human portraits of many officials, some of whom believe that what they are doing is "right," even when their efforts appear to be patently self-protective.
This unusual mystery provides much information about the political system in China, while also creating situations in which the reader is as stymied as Chen about how to he can accomplish the "true" goals of the country, while working for Party officials with their own agendas. Because the author must explain much about Chinese daily life, significant parts of this novel "tell about" what is happening instead of showing what is going on through action, and there are a number of digressions. Students of literature, however, will be fascinated by the many quotations from Chinese and English poetry which illustrate the point of view and mindset of Inspector Chen. A complex and thoughtful novel which teaches at the same time that it entertains, Death of a Red Heroine is a fine introduction to this series, sure to entice many readers into reading more about contemporary China through the further investigations of Inspector Chen.
on 7 September 2006
Thoroughly enjoyed this contemporary murder mystery set in China which centres around the death of a prominent communist party member.The plot itself is not like your typical Agatha Christie murder mystery which has twists and turns on every page,this story takes it's time, fleshes out the characters and makes them interesting before developing the plot.
The whole thing has an authentic chinese flavour to it and the author takes care to enrich the story with many small and interesting details that make western life so different from life in the Orient.
What loses the book it's valuable fifth star is that the ending is a slight let down although i don't think the author meant it to be an out and out surprise but more of a logical conclusion to end the proceedings with.
All in all a highly enjoyable read and will look out for this author's books in the future.
on 8 February 2007
I enjoyed this enormously. Its really a novel about life in transitional China, but full of great insight in to the human condition in general. A very satisfying read with a wonderfully subtle characterisation of the main protagonist.
`Death of a Red Heroine' is set in 1990's Shanghai. A woman's body is found in a canal and it is quickly discovered that she has been sexually assaulted and asphyxiated. Chief Inspector Chen and his assistant, Detective Yu, establish that the woman was a model worker (a poster girl for the Communist Party.) It doesn't take long before the murder investigation is hampered by politics and everyone is open to charges of being influenced by Western Bourgeois or not respecting and looking after the interests of the party.
This is a spectacularly good book, both as a portrait of a culture and country, and as a police procedural novel. The sense of place is overwhelming, the characters are well drawn and complex and the attention to detail is fantastic. If you are one for minimalist literature this probably isn't one for you! Chief Inspector Chen is a wonderful focus for the novel being both a gourmand and a poet and so bringing much of modern China to life.
I loved it. The only thing lacking for me was an author's note on how to pronounce the names.
This is the first of the Inspector Chen series of novels by the award winning expatriate Chinese author Qiu Xiaolong. However, this is not just a run-of-the-mill detective novel, this is a finely crafted work of exceptional quality with serious literary pretensions. The books are set in 1990s China, this first in Shanghai, and depict a rapidly changing and somewhat bewildering society under the rule of Deng Xiaoping, the great reformer. Thus we have a society in which the old cadres are trying to retain their privileges and power and are being challenged by a new thrusting reformist breed encouraged by their leader. Chen, a cop with integrity, thus has to walk a political tightrope whilst trying to solve a difficult murder case.
The author paints a vivid and accurate picture of the topography of Shanghai (which I have visited), of the living conditions of the different strata of society, of the local food, entertainment and of the quickening pace of change. Chen is depicted as an intellectual poetry-quoting policeman which allows the author to recall lines from Chinese and English poets, a topic in which he was awarded a PhD whilst living in the United States.
The underlying detective story is finely crafted and convincing but this book also presents a painless way of learning a lot about modern China, its life and politics. The book contains no violence and is certainly not ‘embossed-title-airport-lounge’ fair. One of the best written and most engrossing novels I have read in a long time, and unreservedly recommended to those who like their detective novels to contain a strong intellectual element. Difficult to put down.