Friday, October 3, 2008

Shanghai Mystery

I don't usually read mysteries, but when a mystery aficionado friend recommended Death of a Red Heroine, I decided to take it along on my vacation. In some ways it is like many in its genre – a big city police detective attempting to solve a murder while battling the interference of his superiors. Does it sound a little like Lush Life, which I blogged in August? But this time the big city is Shanghai, the time is 1990, and Chief Inspector Chen Cao is not your average cop. He's a published poet who supplements his salary by translating English language works, and he often drops quotes from everything from classical Chinese poetry to T.S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold. As head of the Special Case Squad, Homicide Division, he seems to be on the path to success. But when he is assigned to investigate the death of Guan Hongying, a young woman famous as a National Model Worker, politics and police work soon collide. A national model worker is someone who is held up by the Communist Party as a paragon of hard work and devotion to the Party. When Chen and his partner Detective Yu begin to investigate the crime, they soon discover that the victim's life was far more complicated.

Author Qiu Xiaolong was born and raised in Shanghai, and his descriptions of sights, sounds and smells of the city are so vivid that I felt like I was there. Particularly enjoyable are his frequent descriptions of the food that Chen scarfs as he hurries through his day – fried buns from a street vendor or smoked fish head at a hole in the wall restaurant. And then there's the crab banquet that Detective Yu's wife prepares when Chen comes for dinner. It's a fascinating glimpse into the life of the average Chinese worker. Housed in buildings designed for one family but now inhabited by more than a dozen, the residents share a common bathroom, washing area, and kitchen, each family cooking on its own small coal stove.

Inspector Chen tries to believe in the New China, where the excesses of the Cultural Revolution have been corrected, but he runs head on into the machinations of the Communist Party, still trying to protect its image. He and Detective Yu have to cleverly thread their way through this labyrinth. I enjoyed this book both as an entertaining detective novel and as a peek into how China looks from the inside.

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