Qiu Xiaolong - the prolific Chinese novelist born in 1953 in Shanghai and a resident of the United States since 1988 – has made a fetish of the word and the color red - not surprisingly since he writes about Red China. Three of his innovative novels include red in the title: Death of a Red Heroine (2000), When Red is Black (2004) - which sounds oxymoronic - and Red Mandarin Dress (2007). In all three of these books, the main character is a sensitive, poetry loving, yet tough-minded, police inspector who works for the Shanghai Police Bureau; he’s on the city payroll and doesn’t work as a free-lance private eye for hire.
The same inspector, none the worse for wear, appears in three other crime novels that don’t include the word red in the title: A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), A Case of Two Cities (2006) - which plays on the title of Dickens’s 1859 novel of the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities - and The Mao Case (2009). All six books have come to be known as the “Inspector Chen Series,” and they’ve quickly attracted devoted fans. One other book by Qiu – a short story collection entitled Years of Red Dust (2010) - also has the word red in the title and perhaps brings to a resounding conclusion the red thread, or theme, that he followed for a decade.
The books in the Inspector Chen Series are set for the most part in Shanghai in the 1990s, a time when Chinese society was coming apart at the seams, and crime insinuated itself in the widening gap between the disintegrating institutions of the old Communist order, and the newly emerging structures of capitalism. If I might be permitted to wax sociological for a moment, I’d say that the world in Qiu’s novels is one that straddles free-market enterprise and a consumer mentality, on the one hand, and state-run industries and adherence to the collective on the other. In this maddening world, citizens lose their footing, and blackmail and murder find a home.
It’s a volatile, violent territory in which cops, criminals, the innocent and the guilty operate according to their own individual codes of honor or dishonor as the case may be. Watching them wriggle, squirm, conspire and lie is a delight, and Qiu attention to details – the make and color of a car, or the crabs in a pot on a kitchen stove for example – conjures up a rich and complex portrait of an entire society in transition that’s reminiscent of the classics of 19th-century French literature, such as Stendhal’s The Red and The Black (1830).
In Qiu Shanghai, Russian commissars have long since packed their bags and returned to Moscow, while the red-white-and-blue Americans, including tourists, have arrived in force, bringing with them American business methods, words, phrases, and customs - like having a night cap (a Manhattan, for example) before going to sleep. “Socialism and capitalism, side by side,” the author writes tersely in Death of a Red Heroine, the first and the most ambitious of the Chen books, and adds sarcastically, “a peaceful coexistence.” In the same work, a former professor of literature offers Chen a quotation from the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, to explain the crisis in Chinese society. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” she says. “It’s the Modern Age.”
Indeed, things and people fall apart dramatically; the old Communist Party of Mao is no longer at the center of the society, and Mao’s political heirs can’t hold everything and everyone together. In fact, the children of old party cadre are drawn to the life styles of the rich and the famous; their life styles are truly decadent, even by western capitalist standards, and criminal as well. Still, if the society itself has no center, Xiaolong’s novels do, and that center, which is both moral and aesthetic, is Chen a Chinese Communist cop who is a truly original character.
Chen is a most welcome addition to the cast of cops and detectives in literature, among them Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe who walks the mean streets of Los Angeles, and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade who prowls the alleys of San Francisco. Chen is no second hand copy. He’s Chinese through and through, a creature of Shanghai society, and a product of Chinese history. When we first meet him, he’s a thirty-something-year-old bachelor with a promising career ahead of time and the proverbial bright future if only he doesn’t run afoul of Communist Party authorities, or rock the boat that the Party means to maintain.
Unlike Marlowe and Spade, he doesn’t have his own downtown office. And unlike Arthur Conan Doyle’s British detective, Sherlock Holmes, who has Dr. Watson to accompany him and be his foil, Chen has no loyal side-kick to share his quarters, and follow his thoughts, though he has friends and comrades in whom he confides his hunches and speculations. Then, too, unlike his British and American literary predecessors, he harnesses all the latest technology to solve crimes.
No magnifying glass for him to hunt for fingerprints. He uses faxes, computers, data bases, cell-phones and payphones - when he doesn’t want anyone to wiretap him - cameras, photographs, government documents and all the newest gadgets of the library, though it’s the human element, not the latest technology, that makes the crucial difference in his line of work. He knows when to be a tough cop and when to be a gentle cop, when to ask pointed questions and when to back off.
Chen has, of course, contradictions, in the sense that Mao used the word in his essay, “On Contradiction,” though he doesn’t spout Mao or adhere to official Communist ideology. Early in Death of a Red Heroine, the author says, of Chen’s Spartan living space, “There was no portrait of Chairman Mao in this apartment.” Granted, he belongs to the Chinese Communist Party, but that’s in part because membership in the Party shields him and enables him to go on living and working. To succeed, he has to play the political game, and he plays it like a pro.
He’s not an opportunist, however, but rather a man with a code of honor. Loyal and incorruptible, he believes in social equality and he works for genuine justice. Unlike many American detectives, such as Spade and Marlowe - who becomes a part of the “nastiness” in the society around him - he does not take on the rapacious qualities of Shanghai’s new capitalist individualists. In a sense, Chen is more of a thoroughgoing communist than the loyal Communist Party members. He doesn’t believe in “isms,” but Marxism has rubbed off on him, and he can’t help but view Chinese society through the prism of Marx as a class society with class conflicts and crimes of class as well. In part, he’s a reflection of the author’s own sense of himself as a skeptic and a critical thinker. “I may be more or less like Chief Inspector Chen,” Qiu observed in an interview with Professor Jamieson Spencer, who teaches English literature at St. Louis Community College. Qiu added that, like Chen, he was “An intellectual questioning and being questioned all the time.”
A rigid political commissar would probably say that Chen has “bourgeois tendencies,” and those accusations are leveled at him in the course of Death of a Red Heroine. He has a habit of invoking the “Confucian truisms” he has learned from his father who worked as a professor and who was jailed during the Cultural Revolution, and he often writes his own poetry, and recites ancient Chinese and modern American verse. In his spare time, he translates English and American modernist writers into Chinese – for the love of it, as well as for extra cash. As a cop, he’s a translator in a metaphorical sense; his job demands that he translate the invisible into the visible, and the shadowy and the subterranean into the light of day.
Everywhere he ventures, he ferrets out the facts. When he has to he flashes his badge and gains access to places that would otherwise be off limits. What’s surprising is the extent to which the Chinese authorities – at least in Qiu’s novels, if not in real life - protect the privacy of private citizens. (There’s a fascinating passage in the book in which the characters discuss the English word “privacy” and agree that it’s a challenge to translate it into Chinese.)
Chen can’t and doesn’t simply storm into an apartment, or gain immediate access to information – a list of telephone numbers, for example - that he assumes will help him in his police work. He obtains permission from the proper authorities; he asks nicely and he doesn’t slap or push anyone around as Hammett’s Sam Spade does. Chen’s manners help. All around him, the citizens of Shanghai co-operate with his investigations, and so if he’s the hero of the book, he shares that distinction with China and the Chinese people.
As for the “red heroine” who is referred to in the title of the novel, Death of a Red Heroine, she’s a mystery and an enigma from the start, and not until the very end does the reader learn the truth about her. At no time does she appear alive in the novel – though she’s viewed in flashbacks - and at the start the police can’t even identify her by name. The autopsy reveals that she has had sex shortly before her murder. In the novel’s first electrifying sentence, Xiaolong writes, “The body was found at 4:40 P.M., on May 11, 1990, in Baili Canal, an out-of-the-way canal, about twenty miles to the west of Shanghai.” In the next sentence, he introduces readers to one of Inspector Chen’s colleagues on the police force, and an old friend too named Gao Ziling. Then, in the long paragraph that follows, Xiaolong mentions, in passing, “a nuclear test center,” “the Cultural Revolution,” and “an American company in Shanghai.”
On the first page of the novel, and with real pizzazz, he introduces the key themes that will propel the story. Then, for the next 463 pages, the author weaves together the threads that make up the novel: the conspicuous life and the murky death of the red heroine - a Communist Party member and darling of the media named Guan; the story of Detective Chen and the journey he takes to solve the mystery and that makes him aware of his own divided self; and the life and death struggles of Communist China, a nation with two conflicted identities. Like Guan - the “red heroine” - China has a public face that’s displayed to the world, and a private face that’s larger hidden. Like Guan, the country has an image it presents in the media and a very different underground reality.
The detective novel has long been a vehicle to skewer the hypocrisy, sham, and cant of bourgeois society. Granted, Edgar Allen Poe, the father of modern detective fiction, didn’t have an overtly political agenda in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” but by the time the genre reached Dashiell Hammett in the 1920’s, it took on a decidedly Marxist cast. Hammett - the author of Red Harvest (1929) and The Maltese Falcon (1930) - was a Marxist and a member of the American Communist Party. Working as a Pinkerton detective and writing detective stories pushed him toward Marx. Later, he went to prison rather than name names during McCarthyism. Raymond Chandler continued the subversive tradition in his novel The Big Sleep (1939), which deconstructs a Los Angeles patriarch who owns oil wells, collect orchids, and can’t control his disobedient daughters. At times, Hollywood has used the detective story and the murder mystery as in Roman Polanski’s film noir, Chinatown (1974) – which came out in the wake of Watergate – that combines incest and murder with the machinations of the California Water and Power Agency and that ends with a police cover-up.
In the Chen novels, Qiu shows that the detective is a valuable character to plummet the hidden flaws of Communist society, to connect crimes in high places with criminality in low places and link violations of the human soul to transgressions against the human community. Because Guan has had sex shortly before she’s murdered, the crime is labeled “sexual.” Because she’s a Communist, it’s a political case. Sex and politics are inextricably linked in Death of a Red Heroine. Xiaolong goes behind the Puritanical façade of Chinese society into a pit of steamy sex, with explicit details about Guan’s affair with a married man. The model Communist turns out to be a bourgeois mistress.
With stories about crime and Communism percolating in his head, it’s no wonder that the author left China and settled in the United States. Still, if I might tweak the cliché, it seems that while he took himself out of China he couldn’t take China out of his identity. In some ways, Qiu became more Chinese in the United States than he would have been had he remained in China. He’s certainly recreated China in his novels, and if he lives in Missouri everyday, his head is definitely in Shanghai.
Chen’s journey to solve the murder of Guan takes him across the Chinese landscape - to Guangzhou, where he gathers valuable clues about the main suspect, Wu, a photographer, a celebrity, and the son of a venerable Communist Party member. Chen glimpses the upper echelons of the society – the wealth, privilege and arrogance. He also travels down into the world of marginalized men and women living by their wits and with their own bodies in the sex industry.
Qiu does a masterful job tying together in an artistic knot the themes that he introduces in the opening section of Death of a Red Heroine. His dogged detective moves ahead inexorably to solve the murder mystery, while the author puts together all the key pieces in the jig-saw-puzzle of a society that’s half communist and half capitalist. Chen himself becomes the subject of an official Communist Party inquiry. The watcher is watched, the investigator is investigated because the case takes him dangerously close to the inner circles of the Communist Party. In the view of some Party members, Chen’s police work could damage the Party as well as the image of itself and the society it wants to preserve.
The denouement is gripping and suspenseful – as well done as anything of the kind in the detective novels of Hammett and Chandler, and in another field of literature, the big novels of society by Balzac and Stendhal. Ironies abound, and they’re enjoyable to watch as they unfold. Chen is removed from his position as Inspector and withdrawn from the Guan case and promoted to a better-paying job as Director of Shanghai Metropolitan Traffic Control. It’s when he’s off the case, that he solves the case, managing to find the last crucial piece of evidence – a woman’s hair in the trunk of a white Lexus - and to uncover the motive for the murder of Guan: her attempts to blackmail Wu with incriminating photographs of him.
Inspector Chen learns to fuse his two identities: one as a dedicated cop investigating the murder of one Communist by another Communist; the other as a Communist Party member himself. At a key moment, he reaches out to a former lover in Beijing with connections to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Fortunately, the Beijing Central Committee intercedes in the case, punishing the guilty, and making sure that justice of a sort is done. It’s a bittersweet ending. Wu is arrested, tried, and executed. Chen doesn’t receive any official credit for his part in the resolution of the case. He’s kept out of the newspaper stories that depict the killer as both a bourgeois decadent and the corrupt son of an old guard Communist. The Party cleans house and saves face.
Is Death of a Red Heroine anti-communist propaganda, readers might ask? No! In fact, the novel offers one the most sympathetic portraits of a Communist in any literature. As a dedicated Party member, Chen can even be nostalgic about the old days before the Cultural Revolution, and before China took the road to capitalism and money became primary. Moreover, the old-line Communists, including those who proudly call themselves “Bolsheviks,” aid and abet him every step of the way, whether overtly or covertly. Readers of William Hinton’s classic Fanshen (1966) will no doubt remember the vivid descriptions of the inner workings of the Party at the local and the national level. Qiu presents a no less complex portrait of the push and pull inside the Communist Party, and there’s even praise in the novel for Deng Xiaoping.
Granted, the author of the Inspector Chen Series is himself no Communist, but one might accurately call him as an historical materialist, a humanist, and a thoroughgoing dialectician. One of the many pleasures of reading his novels is the texture of daily life that they provide. They feel authentic, and seem real in the way that only a writer intimately and profoundly connected to Chinese society could hope to know and understand. In the Chen novels we see China through Chinese, not Western eyes, and China as a multi-faceted society.
Qiu appreciates the attractions of poetry and culture as well as politics and economics. Death of a Red Heroine is enhanced by the poems in the text and by the allusions to T.S. Eliot. The women characters – the wives of the cops, as well as a woman reporter and a woman Communist Party member - play significant roles and they’re as complex as the men. “Women hold up half of Heaven,” an old Chinese proverb goes, and they certainly hold up much of the world in the Chen novels.
By the end of the book, it’s hard not to love the protagonist or at least like him a lot, though it’s clear that he’s imperfect: a work-alcoholic who hugs the cases he investigates too tightly and who projects himself into the lives of others because his own life often seems far too prosaic for him. Fortunately, he has his poetry and his imagination to turn to, and, while he finds a lover at the end of the novel and while she brings him joy, he also has his own devoted mother. In the next to the last scene of the book, Chen visits her, and she encourages him to continue his police work and “do something for the country.”
In the very last scene, Chen walks the streets of Shanghai, the “unreal city” that he loves, and spies “a peddler frying dumplings in a gigantic wok over a wheeled gas burner.” He tells himself that it’s a “familiar scene from his childhood, only a coal stove would have been used back then.” Chen knows that China has changed irrevocably, and that in many ways it’s a society, as Death of a Red Heroine shows, in which people are better off materially – better housed, and better fed – then they were in 1949 and because of the Communist Party. Qiu brings to life the monumental improvements in contemporary China. He’s clearly bitter about the Cultural Revolution, but unlike many other contemporary Chinese writers, he doesn’t allow his bitterness to overwhelming him. He has a sense of balance and a sense of humor.
At the end of the story, Chief Inspector Chen is at the start of a new life. Indeed, he returns in five more novels that American readers – and readers around the world – can discover and plunge into a world of mystery and crime, love and passion, murder and creation. In The Mao Case, Chen deals with the legacy of Chairman Mao, and in When Red is Black he addresses the legacy of the Cultural Revolution. At the start of Death of a Red Heroine, Qiu didn’t know how to write a detective novel; by the time he reached the end, he had become a master of his craft. That mastery continues in the sequels that take his contradictory Chinese Communist cop into new and fascinating cases, and that show that Qiu is as significant a writer about contemporary China as William Hinton and Edgar Snow, the author of Red Star Over China. In his own way, he’s as bold and original a political writer, as they, and on almost every page he’s a consummate artist too.