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4.3 out of 5 stars
Death of a Red Heroine: Inspector Chen 1 (Inspector Chen Cao)
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 November 2002
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 9 December 2006
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.

Recommended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
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.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
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.

Thoroughly recommended
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
`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.

Wonderful.
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Book 1, in the Inspector Chen series

This novel is something more than a suspenseful whodunit crime story it is one that explore in some ways the old-socialist/new capitalist tensions that were central to China’s ideology post-Tiananmen Square. In the early 1990 it was a difficult time of transition, new rules were being written and it was hard to know how to act. This story offers a peek into the often crooked world in which the population had to work in.

Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau’s Special Case Squad is the lead character and we have a huge cast of players with foreign name to grasp (at least for me) but the author has made it easy by making them very human and distinguishable. “Death of a Red Heroine” provides an idea how Chinese life may have been then. The author’s background being in literature he takes advantage of this by inserting snippets of famous Chinese poems as well as his own (through his protagonist) throughout the drama. The story is well-written although I did find it arduous to read at times (I am not of fan of poetry). The suspense is refreshing but I found the investigation to be slow and faltering. There is little build-up intensity to keep us on the edge of our seat. Food, yes food, luscious foods are mentioned so many times that by the end I was tempted to try my hands at some of the recipes…:)

The story follows the intrepid attempts of Chen to discover the person responsible for the murder of Guan Hongying. Recently promoted Chen sets out to prove himself by solving the case. The flow of information seems to come from seniors party members and this political interference not only added pressure on Chen to close the case it also played hardship on his personal life…..

This book written in 2000 is the debut novel in a long series. The style is very deferent to the one found with American and English writers, some adjustment is needed to enjoy it at its fullest. Although, a good novel I am not certain I will continue further with this series…..
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on 16 December 2012
'Death of a Red Heroine' (2000) by Qiu Xiaolong is a really good read. If the writer's name foxed you, make sure you've mastered the pronunciation of certain Chinese characters in Pinyin such as C, Q, X and ZH otherwise you're in for a rough ride with the names of people and places in the book, set in Shanghai in 1991. For me there are three types of good detective novel: the criminal is known at the start but how do they catch him?; the criminal is only unmasked at the end; the criminal is gradually revealed but they have problems convicting him. This novel is of the latter kind.
The victim is a 'celebrity' in China, a 'model worker', whose corpse is found dumped in an obscure canal. Her name, Guan Hongying, provides the title but initially identifying the corpse proves difficult and the hero, Chief Inspector Chen Cao, assisted by Detective Yu Guangming, from the start faces problems, which increasingly reveal a 'political' basis. Chen is a policeman who writes poetry (compare P.D.James's Adam Dalgleish) and so may be considered 'dodgy' in 'The People's China'. The heroine had tried to fit in as: politically, she was active - and correct - in every movement launched by the Party authorities. Earnest, loyal, passionate. As our department head, she was conscientious and thoroughgoing in her job. The first to arrive, and often the last to leave. I am not going to say that Comrade Guan was too easy to get along, but how else could she have been, since she was such a political celebrity.' (P. 70). It's her hidden private life which causes problems. Suspicion comes to fall on Wu Xiaoming, her lover and one of the HCC ('High Cadres' Children'), hated for their privileged position by the masses. Behind the detectives lurches Commissar Zhang, one of the Old Guard highly fearful of change, who is determined to protect the interests of the Party. The novel ends surprisingly suddenly and in confusion with somebody pulling strings - but isn't that's what it has all been about?
For myself a major point of interest was the contrast of life in China in 1991( still influenced by Deng Xiaoping) with that of today as well as with that of Mao's China. It is a society in transition where privilege can get an individual anything but disgrace can mean absolute ruin. The effects of the Cultural Revolution of 25 years before hang over the participants affecting their actions. Sidelights into the private lives of Chen( especially his affair with Wang Yeng) and Yu (and his domestic problems)are acceptable diversions, if only for highlighting the rigidity of official existence. At times, the writer provides an insight into the general lifestyle: 'He had consumed his ration of pork and eggs for the month. He hope he could get some fish and vegetables. Wang liked seafood. A long line stretched back from the fish stall. Aside from the people standing there, there was also a collection of baskets, broken cardboard boxes, stools, and even bricks - all of them placed before or after the people in line. At every slow forward step, the people would move these objects a step farther. Placing an object in line was symbolic, he realised, of the owner's presence.... Consequently, a line of fifteen people might really mean fifty people were ahead of him' (P. 195)
The only aspect which dragged for me was the occasional intrusion of poetry. Meaningless to me but then that's my own shortcoming! The crime, the cover-up and the exposure can rank with any of detective fiction produced in the West. On top of that it allows you to peep behind the 'bamboo curtain. It's certainly worth 5 stars, if only for opening up such an excellent view of a society struggling with the dichotomy of past and future.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 June 2009
I decided on a whim to invest in a number of detective novels based outside of the UK/Scandinavian cities that I have read. Inspector Chen was a character I found really enjoyable and the political sub plot was also good. My only gripe and it is not about the story is that the political system is cast as only being corrupted, and I felt that there was an element of propaganda to the writings. The story was very enjoyable and I would recommend it to anyone who likes the detective genre and wants a change from the series that they usually read.
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