Book Look: Death of Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer, by Qiu Xiaolong: The first two entries in a mystery series set in Shanghai, these are wonderfully evocative of China. Often, in reading reviews of mysteries, points are made about how the ancillary features -- a fantasy or historical setting -- are the real source of interest, beyond the mystery itself. Fair enough, but in most cases this feels very manufactured; as if the author sat down and said, "OK, I need a gimmick to differentiate my stories." In this series the atmosphere of Shanghai is deeply woven into the stories.
Chief Inspector Chen Cao is our hero. Chen is a well-regarded poet and a makes extra money by translating English mysteries. His main occupation, however, is leading a special investigative division of the Shanghai police force -- special in the sense that they are assigned highly important cases, usually because of politics. The politics here are the politics of Shanghai in the '90s. The institutional forces at play are confounding. There are the dwindling "old cadre" -- Communist party hangovers from the time of Mao, before Deng's modernization. They tend to take a hard line and often view Chen's literary sideline as gravely suspicious. They are however, fading fast. The current Party high cadre came to power under Deng and they are masters of the gray world where fidelity to communism and getting obscenely wealthy are compatible via semantics and sophistry. Hovering in the shadows is the Triad (organized crime) in various guises. High concepts aside, power is as power does. Chen, for his part, is not without political power, mostly due to an estranged lover with connections to the Party council.
Individuals themselves are equally complicated. Many are struggling with the loss of the certainty of communism. Their once safe jobs are gone or they find their pay so minimal in booming Shanghai that they can barely get by. This hits home especially hard with Detective Yu, Chen's right hand man. He, along with his wife and son, still lives in cramped house with his father. He has little prospects for anything better in his career, and his wife, who works as a bookkeeper for a local restaurant actually makes more money that he does. Even when on an investigation he takes the bus to get to crime scenes and to interview witnesses. He has to find a payphone to call in reports to Chen. Meanwhile, many of those with the right contacts have made forays into the business and become quite wealthy but despite lip service to free enterprise, they run the risk of powerful opinion turning on them at any moment.
Hovering in the background of nearly every character is the Cultural Revolution and the atrocities and hardships that were thrust upon them by Mao, leaving them with scars that drive them in ways they often don't understand themselves.
In the midst of all this, Chief Inspector Chen has to solve murders and at least attempt to bring justice into this world where various influential people with tangled webs of goals and agendas would like to see things otherwise resolved.
Should you read the Chief Inspector Chen series? Two books in, I would say yes, unless you are actively repelled by police procedurals. As I said, the mysteries themselves are passable, the side characters and circumstances can be superficially drawn (as in most mysteries) but the world of Chief Inspector Chen is the pearl in this oyster. I'll follow up with a full report once I've completed the series. Which I intend to do.