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BECOMING INSPECTOR CHEN
by Qiu Xiaolong
Severn House, March 2021
240 pages
$28.99
ISBN: 0727890441


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Chen Cao is in trouble at work. He is likely to lose his position as a chief inspector, and that pending change in status has affected his elevated place in the hierarchy of the Chinese Communist Party. He has lost the medical insurance that covered the cost of his elderly motherís nursing home (a work-related disaster with which many US-based readers will identify), so he helps his mother to return to their family home in an old Shanghai neighborhood. He stays over to care for her, sleeping in his childhood attic room. Being under that roof stirs up confusing dreams and brings back many memories.

His first case came with a wave of reform under Deng Xiaoping, when the Shanghai Police Bureau recruited educated young men. Chen is certainly educated, though his university training in English poetry seemed hardly relevant to police work. Yet his familiarity with a particular place Ė Red Dust Lane, not far from his motherís old shikumen (terrace) house--helped him solve the first investigation he was involved in. It may also help him solve the case he's officially not supposed to investigate, one passed on to police by the Webcops. In the course of routine monitoring of online communications, they identified an individual who lives somewhere near Red Dust Lane who liked a poem that had been removed as being anti-party. Something must be done.

The latest in this series set in modern-day China, written by an emigrť who left his homeland for good after the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square were brutally suppressed, is not so much a mystery as a collection of interlinked stories about Chenís past and the tales told by residents of Red Dust Lane as they witness history.

Since these stories are told out of chronological order, and shift from Chen's dreams to his thoughts about his current dilemma to snippets of poetry to his childhood memories to stories told about Chen, it is up to the reader to assemble the scattered pieces. Ultimately, the small mysteries are less important than the mosaic of China the author assembles, from the dark days of the Cultural Revolution, when Chen's father (like the author's) was denounced and his entire family blackballed, to the present, when every move online is scrutinized and behavior modified to match the goals of the state. As Chen's life comes full circle, so does his exploration of China's emergence from the violent upheaval of the past to the algorithmic control of the present.

Donít expect the usual rewards of a mystery--a puzzle that can be assembled, a restoration of justice when the pieces click in place--but rather a thought-provoking and often poetic exploration of Chinese history and the implications of its oppressive present told by a principled but conflicted police officer looking back across his life.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, February 2021

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