I ‘discovered’ Qiu Xiaolong in 2010 during a previous series of the Crime Fiction Alphabet when I wrote about his second book, A Loyal Character Dancer. Death of Red Heroine is his first book featuring Chief Inspector Chen. It won the Anthony Award for Best First Crime Novel in 2001.
Synopsis from the back cover
Shanghai in 1990. An ancient city in a Communist country: looking to the future for its survival. Chief Inspector Chen, a poet with a sound instinct for self-preservation, knows the city like few others.
When the body of a prominent Communist Party member is found, Chen is told to keep the party authorities informed about every lead. And he must keep the young woman’s murder out of the papers at all costs. When his investigation leads him to the decadent offspring of high-ranking officials, he finds himself instantly removed from the case and reassigned to another area.
Chen has a choice: bend to the party’s wishes and sacrifice his morals, or continue his investigation and risk dismissal from his job and from the party. Or worse . . .
I think this is as much historical fiction as it is crime fiction. There is so much in it about China, its culture and its history before 1990 – the Communist regime and then the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s – as well as the changes brought about in the 1990s after the massacre of Tiananmen Square. This does interfere with the progress of the murder investigation as Chen has to cope with the political ramifications and consequently there are several digressions and the pace is slow and lacking tension. As Chen is a poet as well as a policeman there are also references to Chinese literature which although interesting, don’t move the murder mystery forward. A fair amount of concentration is needed both to understand the background and work out the plot.
Chen is a reluctant policeman, he has a degree in English literature and is a published poet and translator. However, he is a good detective and helped by Detective Yu begins to unravel the mystery. Having found a suspect it is really the motive that provides a stumbling block, that and the constant need to keep in mind the ‘interests of the Party’ that prevents a quick resolution.
I like the characterisation, Chen and Yu in particular are clearly drawn, distinctive characters, and the setting is superb. I also like the many descriptions of food (as there are in A Loyal Character Dancer), such as this dinner menu Chen lays on for a party in his new apartment:
For the main dishes, there were chunks of pork stomach on a bed of green napa, thin slices of smoked carp spread on fragile leaves of jicai, and steamed peeled shrimp with tomato sauce. There was also a plate of eels with scallions and ginger, which he had ordered from a restaurant. He had opened a can of Meiling steamed pork and added some green vegetables to make it another dish. On the side, he placed a small dish of sliced tomatoes, and another of cucumbers. When the guests arrived, a soup would be made from the juice of the canned pork and canned pickle. (page 12)
It’s a fascinating book on several levels and one I enjoyed reading. I’m a bit late catching up with reading Qiu Xiaolong’s books as there are now seven Inspector Chen books:
1. Death of a Red Heroine (2000)
2. A Loyal Character Dancer (2002)
3. When Red Is Black (2004)
4. A Case of Two Cities (2006)
5. Red Mandarin Dress (2007)
6. The Mao Case (2009)
7. Don’t Cry, Tai Lake (2012)