Death of a Red Heroine (Inspector Chen 1) by Qiu Xiaolong

Murder in Shanghai…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When the body of a young woman is found in a canal, Inspector Chen of the Special Cases unit decides to take on the case, initially simply because his subordinate, Detective Yu, was the only detective available to attend the crime scene. But, once the body is identified – in itself no easy task in a country as huge and populous as China – it transpires the victim is Guan Hongying, a national model worker: a title that denotes membership of the Communist Party and a position as a figurehead and public role model for workers. So the case is indeed special, and Chen will have to try to find the murderer without revealing anything about Guan’s life that may tarnish her reputation or that of the Party.

Qiu Xiaolong is Chinese, but left the country following the Tiananmen Square protests, and now lives in America. He writes in English, and as well as being a novelist, he is a poet, a translator and a literary critic. All of these elements feed into this novel, making it an intriguing mix of insider/outsider writing. As an insider, his depiction of Shanghai and the lives of the people there in the 1990s is fascinating and detailed, describing food, clothing, customs and the rapidly changing face of Chinese life at a point where capitalism was beginning to be encouraged after years of strict communism, but where the state still had a stranglehold on every aspect of life. As an outsider, he is quite clearly writing for a Western audience, explaining things that would need no explanation for a Chinese readership, and one has to bear in mind that he is to some degree a dissident, and therefore by definition not an uncritical admirer of the political regime in force in China at that point in time.

However, I felt that he gave a surprisingly balanced picture of the regime, resisting the temptation to make it seem even more repressive than it actually was, and giving credit for some of the positive aspects of it. He also shows that many, perhaps most, people support the regime, even though they grumble about some of the difficulties and inequalities that exist within it. I thought it was a wise decision too to set the book back in 1990, just at the time that he left Shanghai for the West, so that the city he is describing is still the one he knew rather than a researched version of the present. It’s another advantage to the western reader that his faultless fluency in English means there is none of the clunkiness or occasional lack of clarity that often accompanies even the best of translations.

All this description makes the book longer than the average crime novel, but it’s so interesting and well done, and incorporated so well into the story, that I found it didn’t slow the pace to any significant degree. The underlying story is excellent, as Chen and Yu delve deep into Guan’s life, finding that she had her own secrets that didn’t fit the model image she presented to Party and public. The plot takes us deep into the culture of Party privilege, and casts a great deal of light on how the current society has developed and changed during the long years of upheaval that have marked the various stages of the Chinese revolution. But it’s also a human story, of a young woman trying to live her life in the harsh glare of publicity, of love and sex and abuse, of corruption and power.

Inspector Chen is the main character, and Qiu fleshes him out excellently, giving him Qiu’s own expertise in poetry, both Chinese and western. Chen is himself a poet, but unlike, for instance, PD James’ Adam Dalglish, he hasn’t chosen for himself an unlikely second role as policeman – Chen has been allocated his job by the Party and has no real option but to obey or to lose any hope of status and advancement, or perhaps even to mark himself out as a dissident with all the dangers that entails. Again, Qiu doesn’t overplay this aspect – Chen is embedded in the existing culture, and while he might chafe at the strict rules governing his life at some points, he largely accepts them and tries to work within them. Detective Yu is equally well drawn – lower down the social scale, he allows us to see another level of the hierarchy and the control of the Party extending into people’s lives. He’s married, and in the latter part of the book his wife comes to the fore, giving us a glimpse of the life of a traditional wife and mother, while Chen’s love interest is a modern young journalist, showing the changes that are taking place for women too at this time.

Qiu Xiaolong

The book is laced with quotations from classic Chinese poetry and surprisingly this works brilliantly at helping the western reader understand the cultural underpinnings of this society, and of reminding us, who are too ready to look down on any society that doesn’t slavishly follow the western democratic model (which is working out so well, isn’t it? 😉 ), that China has a rich cultural heritage far, far more ancient than our own.

I enjoyed this as a crime novel, but even more as a fascinating insider depiction of China at a turning point in its political journey, and as a revealing portrait of the lives of the people of Shanghai. I look forward to reading more in the series.

Thanks to Margot Kinberg for drawing the book to my attention – your blog is sorely missed, Margot!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

45 thoughts on “Death of a Red Heroine (Inspector Chen 1) by Qiu Xiaolong

  1. So pleased you’ve discovered this series, FictionFan – I do like it a lot! As you say, it’s a reasonably balanced portrayal of a rapidly-changing city and country and I do love a poet detective!

    • I’m ashamed to say how long this one has been lingering on my TBR – I wonder what other joys are turning yellow round the edges while they wait! Yes, I was a bit worried he would give a very negative picture but I thought he balanced it well and it felt honest and credible. I loved the insertion of the Chinese poetry together with his/Chen’s analysis of it… 😀

  2. Fascinating! This appeals to me more as an insight into China during our lifetime than as a crime novel too. Reading your review and thinking about how Inspector Chen became a detective makes me wonder what work I would be assigned to in the 1990s if I was Chinese… I take our freedom of choice in Australia for granted.

  3. Thank you for the kind words, FictionFan. And I am so happy you enjoyed this one. The series is a good one, and this was, I think, an excellent introduction to it. I hadn’t thought about it when I read this book, but you’re right that it was wise to set the stories during a time when the author knew Shanghai well. I think it lends a real air of authenticity to the story. I know it sounds trite, but I really feel that I’m there when I read these books.

    • Just one of the many that are lingering on my TBR or wishlist on your recommendation, Margot! Yes, I though the setting was excellent and felt totally real. And I liked very much that he didn’t set out to be negative about everything in China, as must have been tempting given his own circumstances. Looking forward to reading more of the series!

    • Thank you! 😀 It was definitely the setting and all the insight into the culture that made it stand out from the usual detective novel, though the crime aspect is very good too. I’ll definitely be reading more in the series… 😀

  4. I read this book several years ago when we discussed it as a selection of our mystery group. As I recall, I liked it very much (though I haven’t continued reading the series) and most felt the same. Thanks for bringing it to mind again. I agree with all you said about it. Not a typical crime novel, but certainly an interesting one.

    • When I saw how long it was I was afraid of the dreaded over-padding, but actually all the stuff about China was so interesting I enjoyed it more than the crime aspect – though it was good too. I’m planning to go on with the series, but you know what they say about the best-laid plans… 😉

  5. Sounds like this might be the perfect combination of travel literature and crime fiction, both favourite genres of mine. Shanghai is such a fascinating place. I visited in 2012, so probably a different Shanghai from that in the book, but always fun to read about places you have been.

    • Yes, that’s a great way to describe it! I’ve never been to Shanghai, or anywhere in that part of the world, but his descriptions felt very authentic and were detailed enough about daily life to give a real feel for how people actually lived. I suspect it has changed quite a lot – this one gave the impression it was happening in the midst of major changes…

  6. Sounds like a great start to a series, FF — thanks for pointing it out. I guess I assumed most crime lit was coming out of Europe and the States. China would be a fascinating locale for a murder!

    • I thought before I read it that it would have been written in Chinese and translated, till I discovered he’s actually lived in America for many years. It gives it a good feel of being about China but written on our familiar western style, which makes it easier to read than I sometimes find translated fiction.

  7. I’m not sure I’m really drawn to the time and location of this one, but I can appreciate all you say it has going for it. The insider/outsider angle of the author that you describe sounds like it would make the story all the more credible and interesting.

    • I have a kind of fascination with modern China brought on by reading a kind of history of Chinese political thought a few years ago (I know – it sounds dreadful, but was actually very interesting! 😂) And I loved that he could give the insider view but in a style that made it easy for the western mindset.

    • It’s one of those ones that’s been lingering on my TBR for years – wonder what other goodies are buried there! I’ll definitely be looking to read more in the series…

      • I would also recommend Diane Wei Liang’s two very readable, short crime novels featuring Mei Wang for an authentic taste of China (especially the sending of the educated classes to be retrained) – the author was involved in the student uprising & also came to the West.
        I miss Margot’s blog post too 🙂

        • Oh, thanks for the recommendation – I’ll check those out! I hadn’t come across the concept of retraining the educated classes before I read about it in this novel – fascinating stuff.

          Yes, I think we should get up a petition to make her come back… 😀

  8. There is a lesson I should learn here: if I don’t want to be tempted, then don’t read the review – especially when FF gives it 5 stars! 🤦‍♀️

    This really does sound fascinating; I have no choice but to add it to the list and I suspect it may leapfrog a great many others. 🙂

    • Hahaha – sorry, not sorry!! I thoroughly enjoyed this one, more for the insight into Shanghai life though it’s a very good crime novel too. Hopefully you’ll be glad you were tempted… 😀

  9. oh dear, another one for the TBR. the detective sounds great but I know what you mean about the setting being the most interesting part – there are so many different ways to read a novel!

    • This was perfect for my Around the World challenge – sometimes, especially with crime, they could really be set anywhere, but this one gave such a great insight into life in Shanghai. Well worth adding to the TBR… 😀

  10. Oohh this sounds like a really interesting book. I love reading more about the various Asian cultures, I find it so fascinating, and I cringe to say it, but-exotic? Perhaps because I’ve never visited any Asian countries before, I feel that there is so much for more to learn. And if that learning is in the form of a murder mystery, all the better!

    • I know exactly what you mean – there’s something about China and the Far East that still feels so foreign even now the world has shrunk so much. This one was great – the setting really felt authentic to me, and the crime aspect was good too.

  11. This sounds really good! That period of the early 1990s-China is fascinating, there were such big changes occurring. When you said he had left China after the Tiananmen Square protests I was skeptical of him writing about China today but, as you say, it seems wise to set it much closer to the time of the China he knew.

    • I’d love to read a proper history of China during the last century sometime. I did read a history of Chinese intellectual thought which was far more interesting and approachable than it sounds, and it left me even more intrigued about the country. Yes, I was also worried he might be in full anti-China mode, but he got the balance right, I thought – neither sycophantic nor too critical.

      • It’s a complicated history and one that is hard to approach with a balanced view for most people (especially anyone who has lived through its history). My dad reads a ton of Chinese history…I should ask him for recommendations.

        • Oh, yes, I’d love recommendations! It’s often quite hard to decide on history books on a subject you know nothing about, I find – it took me ages to decide on which ones to read for my Russian challenge. And with these countries that have taken such a different route from the western model, so many histories are very biased either for or against, which for a newbie presents difficulties in recognising the “truth”…

    • Ooh, grab it then! It really did feel like an authentic picture of Shanghai to me, and I loved the way he used the poetry extracts to illustrate the Chinese mindset.

  12. I picked this up a year or two ago and never finished it – I can’t remember why. I think it was a library loan that had to go back and I never bothered to check it back out. Your review has encouraged me to pick it back up again and persevere. Somehow I missed that you had reviewed this – I’ve come here from your quarterly wrap-up, so thank you for linking it there!

    • It is quite long but I found the portrayal of life in Shanghai so interesting that it didn’t bother me that the plot was slow-moving, although often that drives me nuts! (Inconsistent, that’s me… 😉 ) If you do try it again, I hope you enjoy it. I’m going to try to read the rest of the series, but my life is full of good intentions… 😂

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