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Death of a Red Heroine - Qiu Xiaolong

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Author: Qiu Xiaolong / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 13 July 2006 / Genre: Crime & Thriller / Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton General Division / Title: Death of a Red Heroine / ISBN 13: 9780340897508 / ISBN 10: 0340897508

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      18.09.2006 12:20
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      Good, but not brilliant

      I lived in China for many years and became a huge fan of Chinese literature, particularly martial arts stories. The one thing I did miss though was crime fiction; although there was increasingly foreign crime fiction translated into Chinese, there was very little crime fiction by Chinese authors. So when I saw this book I was delighted. It has been written directly into English, which is probably why it has become popular here; the author moved to the US from China in 1989 and now teaches Chinese literature at Washington University.

      The story
      A woman’s naked body is found in a canal just outside Shanghai and Chief Inspector Chen and Detective Yu of the Shanghai police are assigned the case. When the murdered woman is confirmed to be the model worker, Guan Hongying, a well-known member of the Communist Party, the case is seen as highly politically sensitive. Chen and Yu are warned to keep any findings to themselves and to inform the local Party authorities about their work.

      Then Chen and Yu come up against something unexpected. All leads seem to point towards the son of a high-ranking official, Wu Xiaoming, who is well-known and respected in his own right. The Party authorities immediately warn Chen that he must give up the case and leave it to the Internal Investigation Department. Believing that this means that the case will be covered up and the murderer will get away with his crime, Chen refuses to give up. Will he be able to prove that Wu committed the crime without losing his job and his Party membership?

      The characters
      Chief Inspector Chen is an interesting enough character. He is not a career detective; he has a degree in literature and translates crime fiction into Chinese in his spare time. Having decided to join the police force, he is quickly promoted into a senior position because he is a member of the Communist Party and has the backing of a senior political figure. Despite this, he is very down to earth and is sensitive to the opinion of his junior officers. I liked him as a character. He reminded me of P D James’ Adam Dagleish to a certain extent, mainly because of his love for literature; fortunately I didn’t find him as boring.

      Detective Yu is a great sidekick for Chen. His initial opinion of his superior is not good; he has been in the police force for years, as was his father before him, yet this young upstart suddenly walks in and gets a job that he can only dream of. Yet once he realises that Chen is not going to lord his senior position over his junior, Yu begins to relax and appreciates Chen’s laidback way of working. Yu was a very realistic, down to earth character, close to his wife and son, and caring and I warmed to him instantly. The two characters worked well together and I would certainly like to see more of them if the author decides to write a series.

      I did like this book. It wasn’t brilliant and it certainly had its faults, but the story was strong and more importantly, it gave a very accurate portrayal of the China that I knew in the early 90s, when economic progress was finding its feet and the Chinese people were suddenly faced with a freedom that they had never known before, although the Communist Party were still very much in the background. I was slightly disappointed that it wasn’t set in the early part of this century, because things have changed so much in the last ten years, but I suspect that the author decided to stick to the time that he was most familiar with before he left Shanghai for the US. As it is, there is much that will seem old-fashioned to a western reader, when actually the situation today is quite different.

      Probably my main criticism of this book is that it is interspersed with introductions to Chinese history and classical Chinese poetry. Although the introductions to Chinese history are probably necessary to anyone that is not familiar with China, they did read as if they were suddenly added in as an afterthought by an editor who realised that an explanation was necessary. Whatever, they seemed clumsy and certainly could have been more natural. I enjoy classical Chinese poetry, but I studied it for many years before I could make much sense out of it and translated into English, it loses much of its beauty. Frankly, I doubt that the average reader will get very much enjoyment out of it, although I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

      As a work of crime fiction, it is good, but not brilliant and to be honest, I was surprised to read that it won the Anthony Award for Best First Crime Novel. However, I am a great fan of any means of introducing China to the (often ignorant) West and therefore am delighted to see this book in bookshops across London. It is for this reason that I recommend this book to anyone who likes crime fiction and/or is interested in finding out a little more about modern China.

      The book can be bought from any High Street bookshop for ₤7.99. It is also available from play.com for £5.99. Published by Hodder and Stoughton, it has 480 pages. ISBN: 0340897503


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