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Every now and then some novelist breaks through a barrier to present the
mystery/suspense novel in a new way that is at once fascinating to read, elucidating with its background information, and fully deserving to be compared to the best of mainline novels. Such is DEATH OF A RED HEROINE, a first novel by Qiu Xiaolong, a 49-year-old Chinese scholar who came to the U.S. in 1989 and became an academic at Washington University in St. Louis.
It starts as a somewhat traditional police procedural. A young woman, Guan
Hongying, is found murdered. She had been much honored in China as a model worker, and so her death has far more than ordinary implications. The case is assigned to Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a bachelor in his thirties who has received faster than usual promotion. A well educated man, Chen is also a recognized poet whose writings are illustrated in the book at times and who more frequently recites from the poetry of others of past generations and dynasties to comment on developments in the story.
Sample: A poem by mid-Tang dynasty poet Wang Changling:
"Boudoir sheltered, the young lady knows no worries, Fashionably dressed, she looks out of the window in spring. What a view of green willow shoots -- all of a sudden: She regrets having sent her love away fighting for fame."
The background information is threefold. First, China itself is new to
most of us Westerners. We know next to nothing about this country that gave the world one of its earliest great civilizations. As we read, we grow to understand perhaps more vividly than ever before the poverty of the people of this beautiful, but tremendously overpopulated country. Although China has opened itself to economic reforms, even a chief inspector is fortunate and envied to be assigned to a very small one-room apartment instead of to a bed in a dormitory. Even sophisticated middle class people are surprised to learn that some of the people at the top enjoy huge mansions all to themselves, since by far most of the people must divide a regular-sized house among a dozen families.
Secondly, overlaid on this fantastic nation is the Chinese Communist Party.
As the story unfolds, we understand what Chen means when he says that everything is politics. To a degree almost unimaginable in the Western World, everything in present-day China has political implications. Every multi-family house has its "residents' committee," among whose duties are to act as eyes and ears for the political police. Like the bottom of a massive pyramid, the great majority of the people must on a daily, even hourly, basis consider what the ramifications of their actions and words will be on the next-up layer, and they in turn on the still higher up level, and so on. In the story we never reached the apex of the pyramid, although mention is occasionally made of a Politburo member. Some of those people in the present higher echelons themselves were past victims of the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guards, memories of the cruelties of which are ever present. No one is safe from a twist or turn in politics. There is also much mention of food in the story, as if eating as well as one can afford is the one of the few approved, non-political forms of pleasure.
Thirdly, "Shanghai was changing rapidly." Indeed, with the new economic
policies, all China is changing rapidly. A new type of entrepreneurial person is rising in the country, privileged on the one hand for all the money they are making, and yet viewed by authorities with considerable suspicion for the same reason.
In passing, we learn that educated Chinese know far more of Western culture
than might be expected. Chen mentions in passing such names as Ruth Rendell (twice, once as author of the mystery novel SPEAKER OF MANDARIN -- I recall reading this long ago and still have the impression that it was rather good), Matthew Arnold, Derrida, Don Juan, P.D. James, Freud, Nietzsche, T.S. Eliot, John Donne, Ravel, and Sherlock Holmes. We can even begin to get an inkling of the aptness of some of those "quaint" names of Chinese dishes that we order in Western restaurants: eg, there is mention of "Across-the-bridge" noodles (transparent rice noodles with side dishes of pork slivers, fish fillets, and green vegetables arranged around a steaming hot soup), and we learn that in the Qing dynasty the wife of a husband studying for a civil service exam had to prepare meals on one side of a long bridge for serving on the other side. The soup and noodles she brought to him one day were cold by the time she crossed the bridge, so next time this inventive wife carried two separate bowls, one with hot soup with a surface layer of oil to keep it hot and the other of the noodles, mixing the two just before dinner.
Chen talks of being "politically correct" and "culturally correct," and we
even see the expression (presumably the Chinese equivalent of the English) "Have a wonderful day." We get the impression that philosophic reflexion must be common among at least educated Chinese, as they think in terms of "There was no stepping twice in the same river," and, quoting from Nietzsche, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."
Against this background Chief Inspector Chen slowly moves along discovering
bits and pieces of evidence, really just nuanced indications at first, gradually building up his case against the chief suspect while trying to placate his superiors and convince the commissars that he is not rocking the boat. We learn of the HCCs, the Higher Cadre Children, that is, the offspring of the higher officials, leading their privileged lives with luxuries almost unheard of for the masses and being above the law for the most part. The HCCs play a large part in this story.
One of the most poignant episodes in the book is when Chen invites a woman
he is much attracted to over to his small apartment. They have been friends a long time, and she gives every indication that she wants to spend the night with him. But then she says something that makes Chen have second thoughts (I'm trying so hard not to get into spoilers). He behaves in a most proper way, but is crushed with sadness. He's a very human policeman, this Chen, and later he is surprised again by another woman who means a tremendous amount to him, but this time in a completely different way.
Chen is neither humble nor proud. He knows he is a product of his times,
and he tries his best to understand and give full value to the system that raised him while knowing and deprecating its weaknesses. Carrying his investigation to another city, he inadvertently winds up in a room with a prostitute and must toe a fine line between temptation and duty. He feels strong obligations to friends and subordinates, and although a Party member himself, he is always influenced by his sense of propriety and decency. At times the investigator finds himself under investigation, and toward the end his fortunes bounce to and fro.
At all times the story is most readable and time flies as the reader gets
more and more immersed in it. Long before we come to the conclusion, we feel we are beginning to know China, traditional and present, as we've never known it before; although we realize our new awareness is not as intimate as that of a native, at least we have a better grasp than before of both China's similarities and its vast differences with the Western world. And we feel gratitude to this writer who has so elegantly entertained and taught us. This is one of the best mystery novels that I've read in years.
Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, October 2002
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