Xiaolong’s detective series, largely set in Shanghai, features Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a literary minded, disenchanted cop with a heavy heart and a discerning appetite. Death of a Red Heroine is the first of the series which uses the detective noir formula to shed light on the social changes and political corruption of China.
Inspector Chen is a poet, translator and T.S Eliot specialist (traits he shares with his creator, Qui Xiaolong) who is appointed by the state to work as a policeman regardless of his personal preferences. (This echoes back to the Cultural Revolution when many intellectuals and middle class Chinese were put to the service of the state and given jobs they were unqualified for – farming and trades – while working class people found themselves appointed to the role of, say, state poets. No wonder chaos ensued.) Inspector Chen is a voice of integrity in an increasingly corrupt landscape, where the divide between rich and poor is increasing and traditional values and communities are eroding. Western readers expecting Chen to diss China are in for a surprise, as a rising Party Cadre Chen remains true to certain political values even as they are betrayed by political players in the higher echelons.
In following the exploits of this Shanghai homicide cop Xiaolong lifts the lid on topical issues effecting modern day China – ranging from industrial pollution in Don’t Cry, Tai Lake to the enduring power and legacy of Mao in The Mao Case (set in Beijing) to corrupt party officials and businessmen ciphering their ill-gotten gains out of China and into the US, in A Case of Two Cities. While the series can be a little heavy-handed it does provide interesting insights into contemporary China; Chen navigates the social classes in the course of his work affording the reader to catch a glimpse into the lot of ordinary people as well as the rich and powerful. The fact that Inspector Chen’s conversation is liberally spiced with classical Chinese poetry is something of an unusual bonus.
Tip: If reading these novels outside of China do ensure you are within distance of an excellent Chinese eatery – the gourmand Inspector Chen will having you craving all manner of exotic delicacies.