Mysteries are the quickest and most enjoyable way to get to the heart of a culture. Including today’s China.
As the fictional detective sifts through clues to track down the criminal, the readers experiences how that society draws the lines between morality and law, learns who in a society has (or thinks he or she has) the power to flout the law, and feels how heavily the dead hand of history weighs down the present.
You can learn all that about the United States from Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade or Continental Op detective novels. Or about South Africa under apartheid in novels by James McClure such as The Steam Pig. In the Swedish mysteries starring Martin Beck, Kurt Wallander or Lisbeth Salander/Mikael Blomkvist that I wrote about in my last “Jim recommends.”
The same is true for China and the series I’d recommend is the six Inspector Chen Cao books written by Qiu Xiaolong beginning with Death of a Red Heroine, published in 2001.
Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai and one of the great pleasures of these books comes from the way he captures the look and feel of what is now China’s most dynamic city in the early stages of its transformation. He takes the reader into the traditional neighborhoods of the city, now increasingly attractions preserved for tourists, into the neighborhoods only seldom visited by tourists where most of Shanghai’s workers live, and into the now world of wealth that has rebuilt parts of the city.
And Qiu Xiaolong takes the reader on this tour at the most interesting moment in China’s recent history. Death of a Red Heroine, for example, is set 10 years or so after Deng Xiaoping proclaimed the economic reforms that made it okay to get rich in China. The book captures all the wonder of the beginnings of Chinese capitalism and all the ambivalence that many Chinese felt (and still feel about that transformation.) Many of the witnesses that Inspector Chen Cao tries to interview in his investigation of the death of a model worker are afraid to talk about an official national heroine because they still feel the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and aren’t quite sure what the new rules are.
Have I mentioned that these are, as mysteries, simply great reads? Death of a Red Heroine won the Anthony Award for best first mystery novel in 2001.
Inspector Chen is the classic detective as outsider—with a very Chinese twist. A poet and translator of T.S.Eliot, arbitrarily assigned by the state bureaucracy to a job as a police inspector in Shanghai, he doesn’t fit in anywhere. Not in the police department where his acquisition of a tiny apartment–with “no real kitchen, only a narrow corridor containing a couple of gas burners tucked into the corner, with a small cabinet hanging on the wall above. No real bathroom either”—ahead of more senior officers and colleagues with families arouses jealousy and suspicion that he has political connections. Not in the world of the up-and-coming professional class out to see how far the “new” China will let them go. And not in the world of real politik where party officials expect him to investigate crimes only as long as they don’t enter dangerous ground.
Give this outsider a sense that there’s a moral code above the decrees of the party and set him loose in a Shanghai with money and secrets and enjoy the fireworks.
I’ve only read the first four books of the six published so far. Of those my favorites are the first, Death of a Red Heroine and second A Loyal Character Dancer.
Red Mandarin Dress and The Mao Case, numbers five and six in the series, were both published in 2009.
Qiu Xiaolong has also translated the Tang and Song Dynasty poems that Inspector Chen so often quotes in the books in 100 Poems from Tang and Song Dynasties.
As you might imagine given the questions that Inspector Chen raises about the workings of the “new’ China, Qiu Xiaolong writes his novels from outside China. He has lived in St. Louis since 1988 where he teaches at Washington University.