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!

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