In 2006 the Wall Street Journal declared Qiu Xiaolong’s first novel, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), one of the top five ‘political novels’ of all time for its indictment of Communism. Many of the crimes in his books have their roots in the repression of the past, but Qiu’s series about Chief Inspector Chen Cao – after Death of a Red Heroine came A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006) and now Red Mandarin Dress – is actually less concerned with politics than with the contrast between victims and perpetrators. At first glance, Inspector Chen, an ‘emerging Party cadre’ and the head of a special squad investigating sensitive political cases for the Shanghai Police Bureau, is almost laughably soft-boiled and mild-mannered. Qiu was born in Shanghai and now lives in St Louis, Missouri, but Inspector Chen, an amateur poet and ‘filial son’, seems to have more in common with the heroes of British police procedurals such as P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh (also a poet) or Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford – decent sorts whose investigations invariably end with balance being restored to a fundamentally rational social order – than with the violent American breed.
Chen’s authority does not come from police power, or the use of guns, handcuffs or car chases, but from being a Party member, which requires frequent backward glances and fast-talking to higher-ups. He is likeable in his scrupulously polite way, but rising in the Party inevitably involves moral trade-offs. Chen accepts jobs and other favours from an informant, Mr Gu, a businessman with underworld connections. He allows a Guangzhou prostitute to walk on his naked back while he is getting up the nerve to question her. He lives in a spacious apartment with a balcony, a perk of Party membership to which his older assistant could never aspire. He resists some of the more outrageous temptations that come his way, clinging to Confucian bromides (‘Some things a man will do; some things a man will not do’), but he is not above accepting favours from an old ‘HCC’ (High Cadre’s Child) girlfriend or patronage from Party elders whose motives remain obscurely sinister. But there is one principle the inspector clings to: he never backs off from pursuing a killer, even if it means running foul of his boss, the bland but dangerous Party Secretary Li.
The title Death of a Red Heroine echoes the most common English translation of the classic Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, evoked in Qiu’s books as the archetypal tale of an illustrious family’s fall from power and prestige. Qiu’s first novel opens in 1990 with Inspector Chen throwing a house-warming party when the naked body of a former ‘national model-worker’, selected by the Party years before to star in a propaganda campaign, is found dumped in a plastic bag in a canal outside Shanghai. Chen returns again and again to the woman’s tiny dormitory room in a former brothel, where he stares at a portrait of Deng Xiaoping on the wall and at the Selected Works of Mao Zedong on a shelf, unable to reconcile the national model-worker’s dutiful life with the sexy underwear in her cupboard and the erotic photographs in an album. The missing link turns out to be hidden behind Deng’s portrait. In parallel, we see the desperate lengths Chen goes to in order to accommodate his Party bosses, although they still send him off to the Traffic Department when his discoveries become embarrassing.
As the series goes on, Chen is increasingly needled by the nostalgia of those around him for the Cultural Revolution, for Mao, for the good old days that were anything but good. In A Loyal Character Dancer, Chen hunts for a missing pregnant woman whose husband has smuggled himself into the US, where he is being held as a witness in the trial of a Triad gang. There is a snapshot of the woman as a teenager, dancing with a red paper heart decorated with the Chinese character for ‘loyal’. It was taken shortly after she was sent to the countryside for ‘re-education’ during the Cultural Revolution. The photograph, like the one of a woman wearing traditional garb which provides a clue in Red Mandarin Dress, shows an individual on the verge of being subsumed by the state. At the end of the novel, Chen hears a tune in an airport bar, ‘another song that had been popular during the Cultural Revolution . . . “We shall be beholden to Chairman Mao, generation after generation.”’ He tells his companion: ‘There is a revival of those popular songs from the time of the Cultural Revolution. This one’s a Red Guard song . . . They appeal to people, I think, not because of their contents, but because they were part of people’s lives – for ten years.’ Asked whether it is the songs that hold meaning for people or their own memories of the time, he says, ‘I don’t have the answer,’ but wonders if he himself is just another ‘loyal character dancer, in a different time and place’. The lines that Chen remembers are by the 11th-century poet Su Dongpu: ‘Long, long I lament/there is not a self for me to claim.’
There is another, more benign cultural force at work in these novels, one that ties Chen and his colleagues to China’s past: food. What booze and bars are to the American gumshoe, food is to his Chinese counterpart. Luscious descriptions of dishes from fancy restaurants or street vendors bring Shanghai to olfactory life: soup buns full of crab meat and pork, drunken shrimp, radish-shred cakes, white jade tofu with spring onion and sesame oil. But the tea houses and dumpling vendors beloved by city workers are about to disappear as the restaurant system – once subsidised by the government – falls prey to high rents and the capitalist bottom line: ‘Shrimp and meat dumplings, beef soup noodles, fried tofu and vermicelli . . . All these [Chen] had liked so much, in the days when society was still an egalitarian one, in which everyone made little money and enjoyed simple meals.’ Even Chen sometimes feels nostalgic.
In Red Mandarin Dress, extreme cuisine plays a starring role, as an expression of China’s gluttonous affair with Western-style capitalism. Recovering from exhaustion at one of Mr Gu’s many properties, Chen is served a bu feast, intended to restore the yin/yang balance of body and mind. It begins with Buddha’s Head, ‘a slight resemblance to a human head . . . carved out of a white gourd, steamed in a bamboo steamer covered with a huge green lotus leaf’. Chen watches as a waiter saws off the ‘skull’, stirs up the ‘brains’ with chopsticks, and lifts out a fried sparrow entombed within a grilled quail, nestled within a braised pigeon. After swallow-nest congee – Chen thinks of The Dream of the Red Chamber, ‘in which a delicate girl’s swallow-nest breakfast costs more than a farmer’s food for a whole year’ – the banquet climaxes when a live monkey with a shaved head is brought in. A waiter prepares to saw off the head and spoon out the brains, ‘so fresh and bloody’, but Chen, ‘suddenly unnerved, sweating’, begs his host to spare the small life as a Buddhist indulgence on behalf of his mother.
Red Mandarin Dress is Qiu’s strangest, most haunting book, reaching back before the Cultural Revolution to an era of ghost stories full of castrated men and avenging harpies. A serial killer taunts Shanghai with the corpses of young women in red mandarin dresses, ripped at the bodice and torn at the thigh. The dresses, vintage pieces from the 1950s and 1960s, provide the first hint that the murders might be connected to the Revolution. They recall the story that one woman was ‘mass-criticised’ while wearing a mandarin dress slit to the waist with scissors by Red Guards.
Chen has yet to recover from Mr Gu’s feast when a young female detective sent to work undercover in a nightclub lures the killer all too effectively. Her body is left on the site of an old cemetery demolished during the Revolution. The killer tantalises the police with a classified ad signed ‘Wenge Hongqi’, which means ‘red flag in the Cultural Revolution’. Chen follows a trail of literary breadcrumbs to find the murderer’s identity. One of the clues is a 1960s photograph, an idyllic image of a child in a garden leading his mother, who is wearing the high-necked dress, slit to the thigh, that was about to become a symbol of bourgeois decadence.
In an essay on his website, Qiu says that he found a photo like this in his house in 1966, when he was a teenager, after his family had been subjected to one of the Red Guard’s infamous home invasions and branded as counter-revolutionaries, leading his mother to have a nervous breakdown. Despised by his classmates as a ‘black puppy’, Qiu fell ill before he could be sent for re-education in the countryside. Instead he dedicated himself to learning English, which led to work as a translator (of T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner, as well as crime fiction), to foreign travel (he was in the US when government troops fired on students in Tiananmen Square) and a doctorate. But familiarity – Qiu has lived in the US since 1989 – has done nothing to convert him to his adopted country’s economic dogma. Communism and capitalism appear to him flipsides of the same debased coin, particularly in A Case of Two Cities, in which Chen investigates murders tied to a corruption case in Shanghai and in St Louis. Visiting an old friend in America who has made a fortune selling herbal medicines, he sits in the man’s garden, surrounded by the estates of Chinese immigrants who have siphoned millions in bribes and payouts from their native country. As always, Chen finds the appropriate poetic epithet: ‘A world of colourful poisonous mushrooms/ after a sudden rain.’
Most of the victims in Qiu’s novels are women, unmarried or widowed. Powerless in life, they seem transformed by death into avenging spirits. In Red Mandarin Dress Chen thinks a lot about the mistreatment of women during the Cultural Revolution and in Chinese literature, and this turns out to help him with the case. The murderers are desperate spoilers tilting against the system that produced them. They disappear as soon as they’re caught; the machinery of justice taken for granted in the West doesn’t operate here. The model-worker’s killer is executed hours after his trial; the corrupt official in A Case of Two Cities vanishes.
Qiu’s portrait of Shanghai in transition is raw but possessed of considerable charm. He is attentive to the extraordinarily colourful life of superstitions in China, to the horror and fear of dead bodies, to the investment in ‘ghost money’, burned at the temple to assuage the dead. The language is rich: we learn that there is no word for ‘privacy’ in Mandarin, that the once ubiquitous ‘comrade’ has lately become a synonym for ‘homosexual’, that the word for diabetes means ‘thirsty illness’, originally conceived as ‘an illness caused by love’. White Cloud is Chen’s ‘little secretary’, on loan from Mr Gu; Old Hunter is Chen’s partner’s father, a retired policeman with a reputation for doggedness; Overseas Chinese Lu, a schoolfriend of Chen’s, runs a successful restaurant serving up borscht and Russian beauties.
One of Qiu’s most vivid characters is Peiqin, the wife of Chen’s colleague Yu. She and her husband were thrown together during the Cultural Revolution when they were sent to the country for re-education. Now a restaurant accountant in a tiny, stuffy office, she reads The Dream of the Red Chamber during her lunch break, and jumps at the chance to moonlight for Chen as an undercover. Qiu has built up her character over the course of these books, portraying her as the quintessential urban Chinese wife. He describes her contortionist efforts in crimping dumplings and cooking over a coal stove in a coffin-sized space, or holding her breath while making love, since her entire family is packed into a flat measuring 12 square metres. There is something affecting about Peiqin’s enthusiasm for life in the face of such labours and constrictions, her ear for detail. Remembering Chen’s first meal in their claustrophobic home, when she prepared a basket of live crabs, Peiqin tells her husband: ‘That night, I lay awake for a long time in the dark, listening to the bubbles of crab froth as they moistened each other.’
Qiu Xiaolong is not one of the slickest practitioners of this genre. His books lack the pacing of bestsellers or the detail of many police procedurals. Edmund Wilson was dismissive of mysteries precisely because he found their solutions ‘neither interesting nor plausible enough’. But the atmosphere Wilson admired in Raymond Chandler’s books is present too in Qiu’s work: ‘a malaise conveyed to the reader, the horror of a hidden conspiracy that is continually turning up in the most varied and unlikely forms.’