Having lived for many years in China, part of which involved working with the police, I have always been fascinated by China-related crime and that includes crime fiction. Plus I've already read one book by this author, which I enjoyed, so I was really looking forward to reading this and even shelled out for it rather than wait for it to arrive in my local library. It certainly had a promising start. Unfortunately, despite excellent ideas, it didn't quite meet my expectations.
Chief Inspector Chen visits his local park in Shanghai for some quiet reading time early one morning. His peace is shattered by the discovery of the body of a man, killed after being violently attacked with an axe. Chen is just beginning to get his teeth into this case, when he is told by Party Secretary Li, his mentor, that he must escort an American police officer for a few days. Inspector Rohn is coming to China to pick up the wife of a man caught by immigration services in the US. He was smuggled there by a snakehead gang whom he paid to take him to the States. After being caught, he promises to provide names if his wife is allowed to travel to US - apparently, he is afraid that his wife will be targeted by the triads.
Disappointed and frustrated that he has to pander to a foreign police officer, Chen is placated when the woman Inspector Rohn has come to collect goes missing. Fearing for her life, Chen sends his colleague, Yu Guangming to Fujian province to investigate, while he and Inspector Rohn interview friends of the missing woman in Shanghai. Alongside the investigation, Chen's relationship with the blond, blue-eyed Inspector Rohn develops...but is there any hope for a relationship? And will they be able to find the missing woman?
I am always pleased to see anything that promotes the real China to English-speakers. There is a real lack of understanding of China, its culture and people, partly because of the distance and partly because of a lack of information. From that point of view, this book is great, because it is set in the 1990s and is written by a Chinese professor now living in the States, who understands that most English speakers don't know anything about China. Set in Shanghai, there are a lot of descriptions about the city, places to go, the food, the culture and the people, making it ideal for anyone who is interested in finding out more. For anyone who already knows the city or isn't really interested, it does read a bit like a guide book at times, which I found quite frustrating.
There are also long sections about poetry, mainly Chinese, but with some British/American poetry thrown in. Chen is a poet on the side and has a deep interest in Chinese poetry. Unfortunately, if the reader isn't, this makes for some very long and boring sections. I personally like Chinese poetry and have studied a fair amount, but even so, I found some parts too long and totally unnecessary.
As a character, Chief Inspector Chen is quite dull. He is definitely a thinking cop, along the lines of Adam Dagleish with the personality of a wet lettuce to match. In both books that I have read that feature him, he has love interests, but they are so uninteresting that the author might as well not have bothered. As for Inspector Rohn...yawn. Initially prickly, she soon warms towards Chen and his "poetic" nature. They're welcome to each other.
Story-wise, the plot just didn't grip me. It could have been so interesting. The Chinese snakeheads (people-smuggling gangs)/triads (general criminal gangs) are fascinating and violent groups of people, yet they are kept very much in the background in this story, which is a great shame. The story was also very convoluted and confusing at times; to the extent that I totally lost the plot, but just didn't care enough to go backwards to try and work it out.
Language-wise, I found the writing quite disjointed at times. It read as if it had been written by someone who didn't have English as a first language. True, the author doesn't, but the last book I read had obviously been well edited, whereas this one hasn't. This really didn't help my enjoyment of the book.
On the plus side, I did finish it, so it can't have been all that bad. I do think that someone who is genuinely interested in China, but doesn't know a great deal, will find this interesting. As a piece of crime fiction, it is weak and I doubt anyone who reads this as a first example of this author's work will be impressed. Stick to Death of a Red Heroine, which is much better .
If I haven't put you off, the book is available from play.com for £5.99. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, it has 368 pages. ISBN: 9780340897539