Recently I have revisited the detective novels of Qiu Xiaolong. These eight books follow the career of Chen Cao, a poet, literature student, translator and dreamer who is moved by the State (of China) into a career as a policeman in Shanghai. The first book in the series, Death of a Red Heroine, covers this surprising transition in career choice (or lack of choice) and introduces us to the policeman Chen and sets him off on his first criminal investigation.
The substance of each crime, mostly quite lurid and unpleasant, is the coathanger upon which Qiu Xiaolong has hung his unsubtle commentary on the changing face of China. The Cultural Revolution is still reverberating in the first novels, but in the sixth novel, The Mao Case, Inspector Chen is dealing with a complicated political thriller: an old man with apparently no means of subsistence except his painting and his students lives in a beautiful mansion generally reserved for the elite cadres of party faithful. How is the painter affording this luxury? Inspector Chen is asked to investigate discreetly, but almost before he makes a move one of the students is found dead in the garden, and another is afraid that she will be next…which could be managed, except that she is the granddaughter of a very close friend of Chairman Mao.
Inspector Chen has to tread carefully through the mine-field of the Triads, corrupt businessmen and ultimately The Chairman himself, and beneath the stone he will find a secret that the Party will do anything to protect…
By the seventh and eighth novel, Chen Cao is Chief Inspector; friends with several Mr Big Bucks and other people whom he has helped one way and another in his career, he has many important and significant supporters in the Party in Beijing and is a highly respected, honourable, and incorruptible policeman, an honourable man in a world full of treachery and deception, corruption and political manoeuvring.
In the seventh novel, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake his superior in Beijing lends him his villa in the countryside in a secluded park reserved only for the highest cadres in the Party. He is given no particular reason for this sudden generosity, though through a series of nods and winks he gathers that he is meant to be taking a look around and reporting back. This is complicated by two things, a beautiful girl Shanshan and the death of the boss of a local factory. The factory has been a focus of a considerable campaign against its pollution of the local lake, now so poisonous that the famous local delicacy “Three White Fish” is no longer edible. Internal Security jump on the case and seize on a likely suspect, Jiang a well-known activist and environmental campaigner but Chief Inspector Chen thinks that maybe that is too simplistic, so with the help of a local policeman who knows him through his translations of English detective thrillers, particularly those of PD James, they look a little deeper into the motives of a few other people who might have been involved…
The latest book, The Enigma of China, is even more interesting because it is dealing with cyber crime, netizens and corruption and bribery at a highest level. An minor politician is shuangguied (ie placed in a secluded safe house for a particular type of investigation) in a discreet hotel in Shanghai but while under close guard manages to commit suicide. Chief Inspector Chen is invited to “oversee” the investigation into the suicide, but is not partie pris to the investigation of Zhou Keng’s misdemeanours which have come to light after a network-led viral exposé of him, showing a photograph of him at a conference with a packet of specialist cigarettes which he could not reasonably be expected to be able to afford; this led to further elaborations of his expensive lifestyle and obviously suggestions of corruption etc.
Once again, all is not as it seems and another unexpected death leaves Chief Inspector Chen wondering what exactly is going on…but just as he reaches the answers to the enigma he finds that he is about to be promoted out of Shanghai. The dilemma is one which this noble and decent man has to consider, should he risk angering people at the top and probably damaging the lives of one or two people he is close to, as well as significantly jeopardising his own position, seeking justice in spite of all these considerations, or should he deviate from his usual practice?
It is very hard to amply describe the beauty of Qiu Xiaolong’s writing, he is himself a poet and every book is full of little poems that Chen has supposedly written, and also snatches of poems of ancient Chinese writers which Chen finds float into his head from time to time, often at times of great stress or in one of his many romantic moments. He is not married, but is clearly very attractive, even in his forties (which is the age he has reached in Enigma of China). In several books he is having a long distance affair with a beautiful journalist, but sadly she decides to marry someone else. But is is through these relationships and his home life, and the domestic life of his long-time friend and colleague, Detective Yu and his intelligent wife Peiqin, that we discover a great deal about Chinese society, especially Communist Chinese society.
This leads me on to mention an excellent series on BBC Radio 4 called Foreign Bodies in which Mark Lawson interviews various foreign detective and police procedure novelists about how their books as well as telling a crime story are also commenting on changes in society in their countries of origin. This has had two series so far, both I think still available as a podcast. If you are interested in social history abroad, this surely is a programme for you.