I recently finished reading Peter Hessler’s Oracle Bones. As Jennie noted when she reviewed it on her book blog, Hessler does a remarkable job of not writing yet another “I was a foreigner in Asia” book. He also avoids making it either a book all about him or a book all about impersonal views of contemporary China. Instead, what we get is an excellent blend of his own story, the stories of people he meets, stories from recent history, and stories from ancient history. These smaller stories, which all seem quite disparate at first, get woven skillfully together into a very neat overarching panoramic story at the end, using the mysterious death of one of the first modern oracle bone scholars as the touchstone. And as an added bonus, his writing, as well as his life, is very entertaining, with occasional bursts of wry humor in unexpected places. (See here and here for examples.)
As you can probably tell, I liked it. A lot. It takes a huge amount of work and talent to turn that much information about a country as old and complicated as China into a comprehensible, interesting, and entertaining narrative, accessible to pretty much any audience. What’s more, it underscores my own thoughts on the way history influences culture, which seems particularly revealing in the case of China, where modern history is seen as so separate from the ancient. Hessler draws out how those connections still stand.
While I was reading Oracle Bones, though, I was occasionally struck by a sense of deja vu, as if I’d read that description, or something very like it, before. And then I realized it was from a mystery series I found in the library earlier this year: Qiu Xiaolong‘s Chief Inspector Chen novels. Now, I don’t know about you, but I love it when I find a series of fiction books that have enough actual facts in them that I can learn something while having fun. This is one of those series. The author, as you can probably tell from his name, isn’t a native English speaker, which gives his writing (while very fluent) a sometimes peculiar flavor, but he does an excellent job making the reader feel like they are in 1990s China with the characters. (Complete with tons of food description, an important Chinese detail.)
The main character, Chief Inspector Chen, is a cop in Shanghai. A lead detective with the special case squad, more precisely. An intellectual, he’s given to quoting ancient Chinese poetry at significant moments. He also writes his own poetry and translates American mysteries into Chinese on the side. When there’s a murder too politically sensitive to let the regular homicide squad handle it, he and his partner, Detective Yu, are called in. Yu is the son of a cop, high school educated, streetwise, and married with a son, almost as different from Chen as he can be. As in the way of mysteries, of course, this makes him a perfect compliment to Chen, to whom he is very loyal. His wife and father often lend a hand.
In the first book, Death of a Red Heroine, Chen is called in to investigate the death of a woman who had been named a “national model worker,” posterchild for the Communist Party, who was found dead in a canal. As Chen and Yu interview her neighbors and coworkers, the reader gets a look into how the Communist system affects people in everyday life, especially as the system opens itself to capitalism and the West. Through it all, of course, Chen must deal with the touchy politics surrounding the investigation, especially within the police department.
In the second book, A Loyal Character Dancer, Chen and Yu must investigate the disappearance of the wife of a key witness in a US criminal smuggling case. She disappeared just before she was supposed to travel to the US, and without her, the husband refuses to testify. In addition, attractive, Chinese-speaking, US Marshal Catherine Rohn has been sent over to help. Just to make things more interesting, a body is found in Bund Park, too. Eventually, of course, it turns out the two cases are linked, and it takes enough time to figure it all out for a bit of romance to flare up for the chief inspector.
The third book, When Red is Black, delves a bit deeper into the system of connections that seems to run everything in China, and takes a closer look at how normal people are coping with the new economy. The special case squad has been called in to investigate the death of the author of a banned book, but Chen has been offered a lucrative freelance translating project by a local businessman. Said businessman also has ties to the triads and may or may not be trying to put Chen under a feeling of obligation at some future time, when his position as a cop and a Party cadre could be useful, but for now, how can Chen turn down the opportunity to translate a document that might help save the historic neighborhoods of Shanghai? Yu must follow the leads on his own, while Chen helps from afar. But what Yu finds leads him farther into the past, and politics, than anticipated.
The latest book, The Case of Two Cities, begins with Chen being drafted into a massive anticorruption investigation by a very highly placed Party official. Just as he feels he’s beginning to make progress, though, he finds he has been assigned at the last minute to shepherd a group of writers to an international conference in the US. Unsure if this is meant as an honor, a ploy to get him out of the country for two weeks, or a secret cover to continue investigating the original target of the case, who had fled to Los Angeles, Chen must muddle through as best he can, while Yu stays behind to pursue the leads in Shanghai. And of course, when the international conference tour takes the group to St. Louis (and their interpreter ends up dead in an alley), who else would be assigned as their new translator but the lovely Catherine Rohn?
Since all the other books have been dealing in their own way with the Westernization of China, this last one offers a nice contrast with depictions of those same Chinese people actually in the West, plus some views of expatriates who have permanently moved to the US. My only complaint is that it felt like the story sort of ended in the middle. At the end of the book, Chen is still in the US! How did all the ends in China really get tied up? I’m not really sure that the next one, Red Mandarin Dress, scheduled to come out next month, is going to answer those questions, though. Maybe we’re meant to share Chen’s own frustration about how any high profile political case ultimately gets taken out of his hands once he’s found the guilty party.
-posted by Dana