Two middle-aged Chinese men meet on the Waibaidu Bridge in Shanghai—they look down at the polluted waters of the Suzhou River and reminisce of days past when the river was unpolluted and they fished for carp from the garden park at its edge. The year is 1990, the year after the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, and I am reading the opening scene of the first Inspector Chen mystery, Death of a Red Heroine (2000).
Gao and Liu once were best friends, but Gao left grammar school to join the police and Liu went on to university to study physics. The Chinese Cultural Revolution came and Gao was spared the harsh discipline of the Red Guard, but Liu was imprisoned and later sent to the countryside for re-education to erase his Western ways.
Now, 20 years have passed and the Cultural Revolution is over; Liu has been restored to his job as a nuclear engineer. He is in Shanghai on government business, but takes a day off to visit his friend Gao, who now captains a river patrol boat. Gao decides to take his friend down the Suzhou River on his patrol boat to find a less polluted place to fish. This is a fateful decision.
Gao’s river patrol boat travels East along the Suzhou and finds a small canal that is well stocked with fish. They catch the fish they want for a nice fish stew that Gao’s wife knows well. They prepare to return to Shangahi:
“Gao returned to the wheel. But the engine shuddered with a grinding sound. He tried full throttle. The exhaust at the rear spurted black fumes, but the boat did not move an inch. Scratching his head, Captain Gao turned to his friend with an apologetic gesture. He was unable to understand the problem. The canal was small but not shallow. The propeller, protected by the rudder, could not have scraped bottom. Something might have caught in it—a torn fishing net or a loose cable. The former was rather unlikely. The canal was too narrow for fishermen to cast nets there. But if the latter was the cause of the trouble, it would be hard to disentangle it to free the propeller.
He turned off the engine and jumped onto the shore. He still failed to see anything amiss, so he started feeling about in the muddy water with a long bamboo stick which he had bought for his wife to use as a clothesline on their balcony. After a few minutes, he touched something under the boat.
It felt like a soft object, rather large, heavy.
Taking off his shirt and pants, he stepped down into the water. He got hold of it in no time. It took him several minutes, however, to tug it through the water, and up onto the shore.
It was a large black plastic bag.
There was a string tied around the neck of the bag. Untying it cautiously, he leaned down to look within.
–Death of a Red Heroine, Chapter 1.
Captain Gao gasped when he looked in the bag and then immediately called the Shanghai police on the patrol boats radio-phone:
“Detective Yu Guangming, special case squad,” a voice answered.
“I am Captain Gao Ziling, of the Vanguard, Shanghai River Security Department. I am reporting a homicide. A body was discovered in Baili Canal. A young female body.”
The detective who answered Gao’s call is Inspector Chen’s assistant. Detective Yu and Inspector Chen do not ordinarily investigate homicides, but they will be assigned this case because a communist party leader believes that there may be political ramifications. Police work must always be subordinate to the interests of the party in Shanghai (the motto is: “For the Good of the Party”).
Detective Yu will come to take charge of the body, document the scene and take reports from Gao and Liu. It will be a long day for the two fishermen and the fish will be past their prime before stew is made and the day is over. Detective Yu’s day will be even longer, but he is used to that—it’s not easy being Inspector Chen’s assistant.
Imagine how the story would change if Gao and Liu had decided to take tea instead of going fishing. They would have exited Waibaidu Bridge to the South into the Bund, the old French Quarter of historic Shanghai. They would be near the famous Yuyuan Garden (literally Happy Garden) and they could have tea in the garden or in the equally famous City God Temple.
After tea, the two friends could walk to Zhonghua Li, a small lane of Shanghai’s historic shikumen, courtyard apartment houses. Zhonghua Li lane was a childhood haunt of Author Qiu Xiaolong and is the scene of his recently published short stories: Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai. These stories give the political and historical background for the Detective Chen series—they are short vignettes that are easy to understand by Westerners unfamiliar with Chinese history.
Detective Yu and his wife live in a shikumen (typical of Zhonghua Li). The detective looking forward to going home as he wrapped up the day’s work when Gao’s call came in. Yu would be delayed in getting home this night; finding a body in mysterious circumstances will do that to a detective’s schedule.
A reader unfamiliar with the inspector Chen novels might ask: What are these novels about? Well, they are about Shanghai; You will read about life in the collective living of the shikumen (several extended families under one roof); Read about Shanghai food and drink, both Yu and Chen are good cooks; Read about tea and tea houses, especially about where to drink tea in Shanghai; Read some classical Chinese poetry (in English) for Inspector Chen is a poet; And, of course, read about how the Chinese police discover who the dead woman is, who murdered her and, even more importantly, read about how the murderer is punished while taking care not to harm the image of the party.
That’s an Inspector Chen mystery in a nutshell: good solidly written mysteries with a large measure of Shanghai tourism and local color. No wonder the novels (there are 6 of them now) are so popular. Start reading the series with the first novel: Death of a Red Heroine, because that novel has the background on Detective Yu and Inspector Chen—who are both interesting fictional characters. The later novels are better plotted, but background on Yu and Chen makes them more interesting.
Author Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai and now lives in Missouri. He has visited Shangahi recently when he published Years of Red Dust, but does not plan to return to live there. He is not a native speaker of English, but he is fluent. He writes in English. His writing, which at times may read like a translation, is just right for the Shanghai setting of the novels. I also like his direct, no-nonsense sentences, which are appropriate for a police procedural novel.
I’m sold on this series, and also recommend the book of short stories, each of which is told with an easy humor, Chinese history lite you might say.
Week 11-2012: Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai, Qiu Xiaolong (2010, Kindle Edition). (I also recommend Death of a Red Heroine as a KOBO eBook for iPad.)