While recently browsing a local bookstore with some time to kill, I came upon a display of paperbacks from independent New York-based publisher Soho Crime. I was quick to realize that their line consists entirely of “international mysteries,” meaning crime tales that largely take place outside of the U.S., and the first of the lot to jump out at me was Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong. Due to my vague and generally unfocused interest in things Chinese—relegated largely to Hong Kong kung fu and action pictures—I was intrigued by the premise of a Shanghai police inspector trying to solve a murder case in early 1990s China, a time of confusing socioeconomic restructuring and high tensions in the wake of Tiananmen Square. I bought the book, devoured it quickly, and am now working on the third in the ongoing series.
In Death of a Red Heroine, Chief Inspector Chen Cao is assigned the case of a body found in a remote canal, who is revealed to be something of a socialist celebrity—a model worker often lauded in the state press. When evidence points to an “HCC”, a high cadre’s child, Chen experiences as much pressure to drop the case as he does to solve it. Xiaolong is Shanhaiese himself and, like Chen, a poet and translator who has resided in St. Louis (home of his favorite Western poet, T.S. Eliot) since coming under undue scrutiny from the Chinese government. Accordingly, there is much in Death of a Red Heroine that comes off as semiautobiographical, and since Xiaolong writes in English for a Western audience, the book presents a tantalizing mystery wrapped in a salient criticism of the sociopolitical conditions Chinese people have faced from Mao’s Cultural Revolution to Deng Xiaoping’s later, quasi-capitalist proclamation to “let some get rich first.”
It has been noted elsewhere the real main character of Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series is China itself, and Shanghai in particular. One need not enter into the novel with a scholarly familiarity with the conditions Xiaolong addresses herein, yet he is masterful in the way he weaves social commentary into Chen’s tense struggle to see justice served without losing face and, potentially, political stability. The Chief Inspector already walks a fine line due to his secondary career as a modernist poet, a politically ambiguous profession that could be used against him at any time should he step out of place. Fortunately for Chen, he develops a network of contacts throughout the city—from a successful restaurateur to a retired cop to triad-connected nightclub owner—who assist him every step of the way lest he get too much dirt on his hands. It makes for a diverse and complex cast of characters from every walk of Shanghaiese life and sets up a satisfying series that feels familiar and comfortable by the time the reader opens A Loyal Character Dancer, the second book in the series.
Inspector Chen moved on from Soho Crime after the third book, When Red is Black; the series moved then to Minotaur Books, who released the seventh entry, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, last May. Nonetheless, I intend to keep a close eye on Soho Crime even as I rocket through the remaining Chen novels. Scandinavians aren’t the only ones producing top notch crime fiction these days.