Qiu Xiaolong. NY: Soho, 2000. ISBN 9781569472422
We’re probably all connected to people who like to disparage detective novels for a variety of reasons. The usual comebacks—there’s interesting writing, involving characters, arresting plots, and ample local color—fall on deaf ears to such tipos.
They probably won’t enjoy Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, either. Too bad for them. Regular readers, however, will enjoy Soho Press’ 2000 mystery for all those comebacks, plus the richness of its setting. I'm sad I missed it seven years ago, but no time like the present to get a copy and enjoy it.
Shanghai, People’s Republic, 1990, is loaded with local color. I can think of only one thriller-detective story set partly in China, a Bourne novel with a shoot-out in the Forbidden City. Mao’s embalmed corpse gets shot up. But that’s the exotic China of the spectator, literary slumming. Qiu Xiaolong’s China is as much the story as the crime. An expatriate author, the novel reads with the constant sound of an axe grinding. The novel’s depiction of Chinese corruption may simply be the sound of mere truth, since, for the cops, the crime’s only half the problem. More troublesome are the politics.
Not unlike Cuba-based mysteries, the novel lets loose on socialist society. “Working for socialist China?” an incidental character complains. “Last month I was laid off from the state-run factory. I need to feed my son; his father died several years ago. So making dumplings all day is what I do now, from seven to seven, if you want to call that working for socialist China.” When Chen apologizes to the woman on behalf of the socialist system, she comes back with “It’s not your fault. Why should you feel sorry? Just spare me a political lecture about it.”
Chief Inspector Chen Cao has risen rapidly with a shining future. Idealistic and romantic, the young inspector wants to improve society by solving crime. Detective Yu, son of a cop, is stuck in neutral, and has been partnered up with Chen. A Model Worker has been raped and dumped into a canal. Chen and Yu follow the routines of their profession. The novel, thus, takes the familiar police procedural form, search and question. The case hits roadblocks that only dogged investigation can unlock. But this is red China, not one's typical procedural. The cops ride the bus. Witnesses testify from intimidation or ideological purity. A little bullying is par for the course.
Class consciousness infects the investigation once the clues point toward a rich man’s son. Yu had resented Chen’s private apartment that came with the job. When we meet Yu, we learn of his contentment with his home life, wife, and son. “There were a few things, however, Detective Yu would like to have. A two bedroom apartment with a bathroom, for instance. Qinqin was already a big boy who needed a room of his own. He and Peiqin would not have to hold their breath making love. A propane gas tank for cooking instead of coal briquettes.” Yu saves his most bitter resentment for HCC, the children of senior communist officials, High Cadre Children. Yu openly expresses his prejudice to the old Commissioner.
Already mistrustful of Chen’s modernism, Yu’s attitude represents a danger to insider privilege. The old metiche writes a report outlining his political concerns and sends it to Beijing’s internal security agency, another layer of control in the tightly wound society. “He also enclosed a copy of ‘Night Talk,’ underlining some words in the poem. He felt it was his responsibility to share with the higher authorities his concern about Chief Inspector Chen’s ideological ambiguity. In spite of his efforts, he was not sure what Chen had tried to say in the poem, but what really mattered would be the interpretation of the reader. If anyone could associate the ‘square’ in the poem with the one in contemporary politics, then it should not have been written at all.” Now the central government gets involved and Chen and Yu face suspension and maybe getting fired.
Chen would go either way. Chen’s a poet, a policeman malgre lui. A literature student assigned to the job by the government--as are many employees--he accepts it; just as he is assigned his housing by government and he accepts the luxury. He could not be a cop. Chen prefers English language literature, translates mystery novels into Chinese, peppers his conversation with quotations from classical Chinese art, and is himself a member of the writer’s union. Chen is also horny as hell and unable to do much about it. He’s extremely conservative and principled, guided by a mix of socialist-Confucian values. He refuses sex with a naked beauty, dresses, and takes her to dinner instead, paying a month's salary. Chen had been courting a vivacious reporter who announces she needs Chen’s help to flee to Japan and her husband. Stunned, Chen remembers abandoning a student relationship when he learns she is HCC, thus out of his league in China’s strict caste system. The irony for Chen and Yu, this HCC saves their buns when the party apparatus is about to hang the cops out to dry to protect the suspect because he’s HCC.
The author’s strategy in making his central character a poet lends itself to ample inclusion of snippets of imagist poetry, some quite striking. Whether the work of the author or actually translated from dynasty work, who can say? I think of the long passages of Victorian poetry in A.S. Byatt’s Possession, all the writer’s work. The poems Chen comes out with frame the action or reflect key moments in Chen’s problem-solving. For example, the final page ends with a evocative line, “In the words of the poem his father had taught him, a son’s return for his mother’s love is always inadequate, and so is one’s responsibility to the country: Who says that the splendor of a grass blade returns / The love of the spring that forever returns?” Chen has just received his mother’s blessing and taking his leave, vows to himself to bring her a pound of Jasmine tea, just has he had vowed after a visit earlier in the novel. Mom never did get that tea. Bad son.
Despite his missed good intentions, Chen possesses an artist’s heart, or so the author would have the reader believe when Chen falls into reverie, or otherwise leads the writer to let his own poetic fancy free. As when Chen becomes “fascinated by the sight of an old woman standing close to the entrance of the lane. Almost statuesque on her bound feet, she was hawking ices from an ancient wheelbarrow, her shrunken face as weatherbeaten as the Great Wall in a postcard. . . Fifty or sixty years earlier, however, she could have been one of those pretty girls, standing there, smiling, her bare shoulders shining against the bare wall, soliciting customers under the alluring gas lights, launching a thousand ships into the silent night.”
When I opened the cover and started reading, the text felt like a translation from a Chinese language original. “Bund,” I thought, “what the heck is that?” It’s the river’s edge, according to Webster, like in the far east. Vocabulary oddities aside, I read on, thinking since Chief Inspector Chen translates mysteries, Death of a Red Heroine may be evidence of the spread of this art form into China and now coming back at the US. I went looking for the translator’s identity. Qiu Xiaolong teaches literature at a US university. The novel, I suppose, was written in English. Thus, I don’t know what to make of the awkwardness that infects parts of the prose, like “bund”, or some egregious grammatical thorns that drew blood. “And then she had came across Wu Xiaoming”, he wrote, but I blamed the translator. For all I know, the language’s distinct tone and lexical characterizations may fully capture what China's people must sound like if they thought in English. If so, I credit the author. At any rate, I’ll look for his next offering.
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