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by Qiu Xiaolong
St Martin's Minotaur, November 2006
320 pages
ISBN: 0312359853

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Qiu Xiaolong's books offer a look at modern day China while usually providing a very satisfying mystery story. While I found some problems with the last book in the series, I quickly became involved in this story and enjoyed it.

Telling a crime story set in a foreign country requires the author to 'translate', to offer the story in a way that makes sense to the reader who may never have been to that country. Certainly, relatively few Americans are likely to have visited China but author Qiu provides us with an accessible narrative. That this tale takes place in part in America provides another angle. While the author has lived in the US for over 15 years, he's Chinese, born in Shanghai and knows the culture and the country. The changes in recent years are manifold and Qiu shows that understanding them isn't the easiest thing for those who live with them.

Add to these lessons (an inaccurate word as there are seldom any 'teach-y' moments, as you understand from reading, not from exposition) the trip that Chief Inspector Chen Cao takes to the United States in this story. He is not only representing China here, but is also meeting with expatriate Chinese members of the community in Los Angeles. Chen is acutely aware that what he does and says is known back home.

He has a slight advantage his command of English is a major reason he is on this trip but he's still very much a stranger in a very strange land. His primary purpose is investigation, to track someone who has fled China and now lives in the US. Untangling the threads of investment, connections and corruption are a major part of the investigation and Chen really would like to be in two places at once. On the other hand, his friend Catherine is back in America, with her knowledge of China and her qualifications at a translator, meaning of course that they end up thrown back together not an easy time for either of them.

I was reminded throughout this book of the differences between our cultures and was fascinated. Chen is a famous poet and is a member of the Writers' Association (we have nothing similar). Chen is extremely familiar with huge amounts of poetry of his land, which comes to mind all the time, as do classic novels. He's at ease quoting dozens of poets from hundreds of years ago; I can't imagine how anyone's brain stores all that. His friends and colleagues quote from THE DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER with ease. His thoughts and comments are peppered with proverbs and poems which I found often to be totally incomprehensible.

There are dozens of these touches that teach about the culture and ways of modern (and to some extent ancient) China and at all times the story moved, the characters were intriguing, aware, multi-dimensional. The story being told never got lost in the many details.

More familiar I admit are the descriptions of meals Chen attends and that was a problem. Although I didn't recognize or know many of the dishes Chen ate with friends, just reading A CASE OF TWO CITIES with its descriptions of bass with ginger and green onion, peeled shrimp, roast duck, oh man these people have just got to stop having meetings and conferences over food.

Reviewed by Andi Shechter, May 2007

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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