Crime Fiction Alphabet: Q

For the letter Q in Kerrie’s Crime Fiction Alphabet I’ve chosen Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong.

Death of a red heroineQX

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 . . .

My thoughts:

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)

Crime Fiction Alphabet – X is for A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong

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.