Tuesday, January 08, 2013

[Books] Chief Inspector Chen Mysteries

Chief Inspector Chen Mysteries, by Qiu Xialong: These are an ongoing series (six so far) of police procedurals set in modern Shanghai. Written by Qui Xiaolong, a Shanghai-born, Beijing educated expat, currently living and teaching in St. Louis. They are quite popular, and have been well-received critically. Now, mysteries rarely get outright bad reviews. If you are attracted to the formula, the book will not negatively impress you unless it is really abysmal. But what makes a mystery truly stand out has nothing to do with it being a mystery. The police procedural aspect of it rote. It's the hook that tells the reader: this book will likely hold your interest and you won't regret having dropped some scratch on this. Something more than the mystery aspect that has to be there to keep you coming back, and having read all six now (partial exception, I did not finish the fourth, A Case of Two Cities, because I left it on the plane on my way back from Cali) and considering myself a fairly discerning reader, it's worth examining what I liked and what I didn't like that made me keep coming back.
  • The writing itself offered little pleasure. I gather Qui writes in English, not in his native language for translation. Qui is a poet by profession, so I don't doubt that he knows his way around words and images, but with English as his second language everything reads like a dutiful translation. Call the prose workmanlike, but with a certain unpolished awkwardness -- it gets the job done, but he just doesn't have the flow that sounds natural to a native English-speaker's ear . A mild negative, but nothing that would drive me away, obviously.
  • Characters are utterly crucial because a mystery series is to a standalone novel like a TV show is to a movie. A TV series succeeds because the characters are folks you want to hang out with, or at least folks who are compelling and interesting enough for you to want to keep track what they are doing. This is number one among the things that can keep you coming back. Chief Inspector Chen is a wonderful protagonist. The proverbial man working for change within the system; he is very ethical, yet accepts that the world as it is requires compromise. Even his career in the police force is a compromise of his preferred avocation of poetry and literature. An ongoing theme throughout the novels is how Chen's self-identity moves gradually from one side of compromise to the other. By the end of The Mao Case he has moved completely from being a poet who is a cop out of practicality to being a cop who takes writing jobs as side work. With each investigation he makes more and more cop-useful connections and works more for to limit harm goals than idealist fidelity law enforcement. Like most of us, Chen believes his actions are based in reason and principle when in fact they may just be rationalized acts of selfishness or convenience. Chen's immediate circle of support consists of his partner Yu -- less sophisticated than Chen but professionally solid, courageous, and well-meaning -- Yu's wife Peiqin -- although she has no official standing, she is a sharper study and more well rounded than Yu and gets deeply involved in the investigations -- Yu's father Old Hunter -- a retired cop with plenty of old friends and favors to draw on. Beyond them, Chen has connections in both the business world and in the Party, where his primary connection is his erstwhile, impractical, intermittent girlfriend who is a high Party cadre and is called on to pull strings on more than one occasion. Although Chen attempts to do right by all the people who support him, there is the definite hint that he won't hesitate to use them as needed to his own ends. The upshot here is that all these characters are interesting and/or likeable is some fashion. They are folks you make you want to keep up on, to see what they are up to. That, as I said, is the key to keep you coming back.
  • Lastly, there is China itself. In one sense at least the conflicts of Chinese society form the basis for much of the conflicts in the novels. The antagonists and passing characters generally have one of two backstories: 1) either they or close relatives suffered greatly under Mao (Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, etc.) or, 2) they are fighting a battle (either winning or losing) with the oxymoronic dichotomy of contemporary China where unbridled crony capitalism flourishes in the name of the pure egalitarianism of the Communist Party. The interactions that stem from either of these two sources are generally the events that trigger the murders that are being investigated and are often the source of the "guided" resolutions that Chen must satisfy while pushing for proper justice, in his own semi-anti-heroic way. This lends an exotic, non-Western/progressive flavor to the books that is refreshing. (I should emphasise that my description is entirely based in Qui's presentation of China and he himself is of character type 1, having a father who was horribly mistreated under Mao. I have no first hand understanding of the situation.)
So that's why I read them. Should you? They do nail the police procedural genre perfectly, so if you've just finished reading all the "Girl Who Did Something Defiantly Self-Destructive" books or have a taste for novels of that stripe, then yes. It's a safe bet you'll enjoy them immensely and plow through them all like I did.

Tangent: This piece in the WSJ is a fascinating look at how language is used to criticize China within the bounds of permissible speech.