Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai and was a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association, publishing poetry, translations and criticism in China. Since 1989 he has lived in the United States, his work being published in many literary magazines and anthologies. His first crime novel, Death of Red Heroine, won the Anthony Award for Best First Crime Novel. A Loyal Character Dancer is his second book featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao, of the Shanghai Police Bureau.
Like Qiu Xiaolong, Chen is a member of the Chinese Writers’ association and he writes poetry (reminding me of PD James’s Adam Dalgleish). It was not his desire to become a policeman. He is also a gourmet and the book contains many tantalising descriptions of Chinese food – for example:
He ordered a South Sea bird’s nest soup with tree ears, oysters fried in spiced egg batter, a duck stuffed with a mixture of sticky rice, dates, and lotus seed, a fish steamed live with fresh ginger, green onions, and dried pepper, … (page 120-121).
In this book he has two crimes to deal with – the murder of an unknown man found in Bund Park, a park celebrated for “its promenade of multi-colored flagstones, a long curved walkway raised above the shimmering expans of water which joined the Huangpu and Suzhou rivers.” The man was in his forties, dressed in silk pajamas and he had been hacked more than a dozen times with a sharp, heavy weapon.
His second case is to investigate the disappearance of Wen Liping, the wife of Feng Dexiang, a crucial witness in an illegal immigrant case in Washington. The American and Chinese governments have agreed to a joint investigation to find Wen and Chen is assigned to work with Inspector Catherine Rohn, of the US Marshall’s Office.
I loved this book. There is a lot in it about life in China, the impact of the Cultural Revolution and the country itself. There is a very strong sense of place and this had me reaching for my sister’s books on China (she visited a few years ago before she died) to see photos of the locations and read more about life in China.
Having to explain things to Catherine made it easy for Qiu to pack in lots of information that otherwise could have seemed intrusive. For example as well as quoting poetry he also quotes from Confucius and explains literary references. Wen was a beautiful young woman, forced to leave her home to be “re-educated” when she was only sixteen during the Cultural Revolution. She had become a Red Guard cadre and a member of the song-and-dance ensemble, dancing the loyal character dance (hence the title of the book). Chen explains to Catherine that although dancing was not then allowed in China, this was particular form of dancing was allowed :
… dancing with a paper-cut out of the Chinese character of Loyalty or with a red paper heart bearing the character, while making every imaginable gesture of loyalty to Chairman Mao. (page 84)
Chen is an enigmatic man, skilled at working the system. As a chief inspector he is also responsible for preserving Shanghai’s image. Keeping and saving face is very important. His boss, Li, the Party Secretary is more concerned with making sure that Catherine has a satisfactory stay in China, seeing only the good things than with carrying out the investigation into Wen’s disappearance. He does not like it when Chen and Catherine discuss the living conditions of the poor, China’s birth control policy and the question of illegal immigrants to the US. However, Chen and Catherine make a good partnership and with the help of Chen’s assistant, Dectective Yu get to the bottom of the mysteries of the murder and Wen’s disappearance, despite the activity of rival triad gangs.