Death of a Red Heroine
Murder in Shanghai in the ‘90s presents Inspector Chen with a difficult choice.
The victim, Guan Hongying, was a National Model Worker, a celebrity of utmost probity. But perhaps her personal life was not so pristine. Inspector Chen Cao, a published poet and translator of T. S. Eliot, who has been assigned to head the Shanghai Police Bureau’s Special Case Squad, is urged by his superiors to consider the political implications of his investigation. Commissar Zhang, an old bureaucrat, doesn’t want Chen to peer under any stones. Does Chen dare to persevere?
Contemporary China is a society in turmoil. Faithful old party members, forced to retire, have lost prestige and perquisites; the new capitalists are on the rise. Still ensconced on top of the ladder are the High Cadres and, even above them, the HCC-High Cadre Children-their privileged status analogous to that of medieval princes. Chen is romantically interested in a newspaperwoman whose background would damage his prospects. He relinquished his former Beijing girlfriend as soon as he learned that she was the daughter of a Politburo member, thus far above his reach. Now, if Guan’s murderer is to be punished, Chen must invoke her influence by rekindling the old flame. Or else a murderer may go unpunished.
By any standard, Inspector Chen Cao is a novelty in the world of police procedurals. A published poet and translator of American and English mystery novels, he has been assigned by the Chinese government, under Deng Xiaoping’s cadre policy, to a “productive” job with the Special Cases Bureau of the Shanghai Police Department.
Shanghai in the mid-1990s is a city caught between reverence for the past and fascination with a tantalizing, market-driven present. When the body of a young “national model worker,” revered for her adherence to the principles of the Communist Party, turns up in a canal, Chen is thrown into the midst of these opposing forces. As he struggles to unravel the hidden threads of this paragon’s life, he finds himself challenging the very political forces that have guided his life since birth. With party-line-spouting superiors above him and detectives who resent his quick promotion beneath him, Chen finds himself wondering whether justice is a concept at all meaningful in late-20th-century China.
Death of a Red Heroine is a book hovering uneasily between the spheres of fiction and fact, creativity and didacticism. For much of the novel, author Qiu Xiaolong seems more intent on driving home the actions and consequences of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath than on the slowly unfolding plot. Tedious repetitions of the fates, under Mao, of “educated youths” joust with both the actions of the detectives and Chen’s “poetic” ruminations, which, unfortunately, are infected by precisely the stiffness and arbitrariness Qiu is at pains to decry in his historical passages. The moving couplets Chen favors are potentially fascinating insights into the interaction between ancient and modern China, but instead of provoking the reader into reflection, Qiu offers reductive explanations of each and every poem.
The moments when Qiu concentrates on invoking atmosphere are both illuminating and rewarding: Detective Yu’s wife’s pride and pleasure in having brought home a dozen crabs at “state price” are movingly well crafted, all the more so because Qiu seems almost unaware of what he is doing. Rather than lecturing on the economic dilemmas of the modern worker, he lets Peiqin’s simple happiness speak for itself. In the last quarter of the book, Qiu seems to find his stride, though his writing style remains undeniably awkward. Here Chen expands and relaxes, and with him, the novel. Qiu’s debut, though anything but polished, holds the promise of better things to come. —Kelly Flynn