Several months ago, I did a post (which you can view here) on why so little indigenous crime fiction comes out of China.
One of the authors I mentioned, probably the best known Chinese crime writer in the West, is the Chinese born US-based Qui Xiaolong. His character, a poetry-sprouting cop called Chen Cao based in Shanghai, has featured in several novels.
When Karen Chisholm, one of the reviewers of the excellent site Australian Crime Fiction, mentioned she was reviewing one of Xiaolong’s books, Death of a Red Heroine, published in 2000, I was keen to cross post it. Her review is below.
Shanghai in the mid-1990s is a city caught between reverence for the past and fascination with a tantalizing, market-driven present. When the body of a young “national model worker,” revered for her adherence to the principles of the Communist Party, turns up in a canal, Chen is thrown into the midst of these opposing forces. As he struggles to unravel the hidden threads of this paragon’s life, he finds himself challenging the very political forces that have guided his life since birth. With party-line-spouting superiors above him and detectives who resent his quick promotion beneath him, Chen finds himself wondering whether justice is a concept at all meaningful in late-20th-century China.
To my mind, the very best crime fiction in the world provides a window into the world in which it is set. Be that the psyche of the people, the machinations of the society, how a community is structured and operates, the laws and mores, even the way in which authorities deal with the disorder, how they implement authority. Death of a Red Heroine is set in Shanghai in 1990, a year after Tiananmen Square, an ancient city with a population tightly controlled by the Communist Party. Poet Chen Cao is an unlikely policeman, forced into the job by the party system, he’s caught between a love of poetry and his own innate sense of responsibility. A loner, a romantic soul, he heads a special unit which is given the task of investigating the brutal murder of Guam Hongying. A National Model Worker, the death of Hongying is viewed as much a political situation as it is a crime.
Death of a Red Heroine is a very intricate book, exploring many aspects of the society in which the action takes place. Firstly the character of Inspector Chen Cao, a maverick (as much as you can be under totalitarian control), he’s a poet, a loner, a romantic soul forced into the life of a policeman. Enjoying the very small privileges that come with rank, he’s also uncomfortable with their existence. He’s more fortunate in his friendships – both with long-term friends and with his colleagues.
The second aspect of the book that is carefully explored is the victim herself. Her status as a National Model Worker means that her death hits the desks, and the minds of the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Her treatment, in death, as it was in life, is slightly different. The way that her status, and her life was regarded is a particularly interesting aspect of this book, as it leads to the final component of the book worth mentioning - Chinese Society in its own right. Possibly the strongest aspect of the book, because the culture and political system of the society imposes itself over every aspect of it’s people’s lives. From the way that the investigation is regarded, to the way that Hongying and Chen Coa lead their lives, every move everybody makes is somehow choreographed by the ever present “Party” and its cadres.
The parts of the book that don’t work quite as well are the plot, and some of the messages that the author is attempting to impart. Second part first – there is some rather heavy-handed repetition of the ills of Communist China. Whether or not you agree or disagree with the messages being delivered, constant repetition doesn’t help. The first part – the plot – well got more than a bit hazy at times. Sometimes this was because we’d wandered so far from the central point of the book memory faded, at other points it was simply because plot points sort of got “dumped” into the narrative. Either way, it’s not the most complex or unexpected resolution to the death of an attractive young woman.
It also isn’t on the fast, tense, light read side of the scale. This is a book which will require a bit of concentration, some acceptance that as with many debuts, there’s a bit of work going on to establish a character and his place in the world. But as a lead into a new series, this book has ticked yes to a lot of questions. This is undoubtedly a series that I want to catch up with. In a hurry.
Death of a Red Heroine and other Chen Cao books are available through Sceptre Books.