Among my favorite fall finds are a series of books by Chinese ex-patriate, Qiu Xiaolong — the Inspector Chen series. Having visited China a few years ago, and having spent a fair chunk of time in Shanghai (the primary setting for this series), I have devoured these books. Qiu does a great job of describing the “Chinese socialism” of the 1990s, on the brink of exploding into what could only be described as the Chinese capitalism of today.
I stumbled onto Qiu’s first book, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), when I was browsing the mystery stacks at Powell’s Books. I picked it up based on a solid staff recommendation and am so glad that I did, as you’ll note from my earlier “Fall Reads” post.
When Red is Black is the next book in the Inspector Chen series that I read (although I believe it is the third in order of publication so now I am going back to read Loyal Character Dancer, the second). The book continues to develop the friendship between Yu and Chen, two polar opposites, and this relationship is a true highlight of Qiu’s books. Yu’s wife, Peiqin, has a prominent role in the book, providing a sounding board for both Yu and Chen concerning the “book within a book”, Death of a Chinese Professor.
When Red is Black juxtaposes life in a traditional shikumen-style house (shared in Communist China by twelve to sixteen families) with proposed life in the New World housing development project proposed by a “Big Bucks”, Mr. Gu (also to be developed in the style of a shikumen house). Gu convinces Chen to work on a lucrative English translation of the New World business plan (via which Gu ultimately obtains funding by American investment bankers), all while Yu (with assistance from the vacationing Chen) investigates an actual murder that took place in a ramshackle shikumen-style building in one of Shanghai’s slums. Qiu’s ability to jump from stark reality to the “New World” version of the future is effective and metaphorically allows the reader to feel the strain taking place in Shanghai and the rest of China.
The mystery itself, much like in Death of a Red Heroine, isn’t particularly complex or twisted. It is a rather straightforward development based on Yu’s investigation, although the party (via Party Secretary Li of the Shanghai Police Bureau) certainly threw at least one red herring in Yu’s path in an effort to encourage a quick resolution to the “politically sensitive” crime.
I enjoyed When Red is Black perhaps more than the first book of Qiu’s that I read, particularly because we see more how business is done (or was done) at the highest levels in China. And we see Chen delicately strattle this “Big Bucks” world, as he calls it, with his relatively low-key existence as an Inspector in the Police Bureau. Definitely a must-read in the series.
And, see the Book Reviews for my review of The Enigma of China, one of Qiu’s latest in the Inspector Chen installments and my favorite so far.