First Published: 2000
Series: Inspector Chen #1
SHANGHAI IN 1990. An Ancient city in a Communist country: looking to the future for its survival. Chief Inspector Chen, a poet with a sound instinct for self-preservation, knows the city like few others.
When the body of a prominent Communist party member is found, Chen is told to keep the party authorities informed about every lead. And he must keep the young woman’s murder out of the papers at all costs. When his investigation leads him to the decadent offspring of high-ranking officials, he finds himself instantly removed from the case and reassigned to another area.
Chen has a choice: bend to the party’s whishes and sacrifice his morals, or continue his investigation and risk dismisal from his job and from the party. Or worse . . .
How good does that blurb sound? A detective novel that takes place in Communist China! Unfortunately, and despite almost every other person I know enjoying it, I found it underwhelming. Proof, I guess, of just how subjective reading can be. It’s not a ‘bad’ book, it had a lot of promise, and it picked up in the middle after a slow start. But in the end it just wasn’t for me and I can, mainly, pinpoint this to four things; way too much exposition and introspection on unimportant details, obvious clues going unnoticed for far too long, descriptions and portrayals of female characters that consistently skeeved me out, all rather leading to a main character that was hard to feel anything for.
So I guess I’ll start on the overabundance of exposition. The book is absolutely full of details about life in 90s Communist Shanghai. Which would be fascinating (and still is fascinating at times) if it was less ‘lecturey’ and they were slipped in with a bit more skill. As it is the author seems so concerned his audience won’t understand Chinese words or concepts that instead of simply letting them work out the meaning from the context he has to stop the story to explain them. Every, single, time. Which ends up with a disjointed flow and me feeling incredibly talked down to. I may not know a lot about communist China and I certainly want to learn more but that doesn’t mean I want to be spoon-fed it like a baby. Despite all the information given about Shanghai here I never for one moment felt I had a grip of the city, like I could see it in my mind’s eye as I was reading. It felt like listening to someone who had been on holiday there talk about it, or listening in on an informal lecture, rather than going yourself.
I mean, just get on with the story. If I don’t understand some minor detail I’ll do the same thing I would do for a book set in Britain or the US (and I frequently don’t understand geographic or cultural references in books set in the USA); I’ll grab a dictionary, open Wikipedia, and look it up. China is not fantasyland where the author needs to explain concepts and show off their world-building – it’s a real place, the information is out there if people want to go looking for more detail. And frankly even if this was set in a fantasyland where I couldn’t look things up I would still find the infodumping poorly timed and overused. Yes, communist China is very interesting, but either get better at integrating your information into the story or save it for the stuff that matters.
Maybe it’s a silly thing to moan about, the information on 90s China seems to be what most other reviews love about this book, but for me it mostly just spoilt the pacing. I just keep thinking that, if this had been written for a Chinese audience, with the assumption that the readers had a basic understanding of the setting, it would have been a much much stronger and better flowing novel (and it’s not as if relevant details couldn’t be put into notes at the end – translated fiction and old classics have endnotes for this sort of stuff all the time). As it is it’s too catered to ‘person who knows nothing about China’ and busy interrupting itself to explain the setting for it to actually get on with the story.
And it has a similar problem when it comes to portraying politics, or human emotion in general for that matter. It’s almost didactic in places, we’re spoon-fed exactly what we’re meant to think of the Chinese Communist Party. Every time something happens Chen’s explanation of the ‘political reasons’ is never far away, even when it’s just repeating the same thing we’ve been informed 12millionty times before or when it’s so fucking obvious it’s not hard to work out for yourself (I’m thinking particularly here of the final chapter and a prominent ‘well duh!’ moment for me). Trust me to work a little out on my own please, I already spotted all the clues to the mystery chapters before your detective after all.
Which brings me neatly onto my second objection: the mystery really wasn’t all that mysterious. A female body is found in a rural canal. Naked, strangled and wrapped in a plastic bag. A post-mortem reveals that she had sex shortly before her death, that her stomach contains caviar, and that her body shows no sign of a struggle. So what is the only hypothesis do the police originally draw from this? That she was raped and murdered by a random stranger. It takes about six more chapters for Chen to finally go ‘caviar! That’s expensive and well beyond her means. She must have eaten out with somebody!’ and when he does everybody is amazed by his deductive reasoning. The same deductive reasoning that told him earlier that ‘She could not have been romantically involved at the time of her death. There was no privacy possible in [her] dorm building’ – because apparently a couple is only allowed to have sex in the girl’s dormroom and meeting up elsewhere is totally out of the question! The list of overlooked clues could go on and on – but eventually they realise them and discover their suspect at around the halfway point. The rest of the book is mostly trying to prove that hedunit and working on discovering the motive against half-hearted pressure to stop from higher up. In terms of a ‘murder mystery’ it’s rather lacking.
What really got me though was the way the female characters were presented. In part this is of course deliberate – the investigation unearths an underworld of misogyny, sexual blackmail and physical and emotional abuse, the killer’s attitude towards women is vile. I expect to be disgusted at that though, and I expect to be irritated by the way that women were viewed in communist China (and not just there) as primarily ‘wives’, ‘Party members’ or ‘wanton‘. What I didn’t expect was to be so utterly skeeved out by the protagonists attitude towards women as well. Oh he’s not a vile abuser like the killer, not by any means. He doesn’t overtly sexualise and dehumanise women as nothing but objects – but he does that overly romantic ‘poetic’ praise, putting on a pedestal thing which is almost just as dehamanising and creepy. The way he describes women’s appearance in such flowery ways (often accompanied by a Chinese love poem the woman reminds him of), or the way the author feels the need to point out when a woman’s t-shirt is ‘tight’ or her blouse is ‘almost transparent’ or that her nipples are showing. Stop it, stop it, stop it.
The scene where Chen meets his love interest is just terrible. He heroicly catches her as she trips over and the narration basically says that she ‘need not have been embarrassed’ because Chen found her attractive and didn’t mind the physical contact. Not only cliché but gross. Like, my embarrassment at tripping should be directly tied to whether the guy who helps me out finds me attractive?? NO. Then there’s the scene where he realises the witness he’s about to interview is a prostitute, thinks about showing his ID card, but then decides he’ll have an exotic Japanese foot massage first. Yuck. Meanwhile his coworker Yu is out interviewing another potential witness and when she doesn’t want to speak to the police he falsely claims he has photos of her having sex and will release them to her employers. Again: yuck. Oh and then I’m meant to buy it when he is all outraged that her ex made exactly the same threats. I wouldn’t want eiher of these men as policemen.
I think I’m meant to find Chen an intellectual romantic but I just can’t . Yes, society seems to have taken a collective shit on women in this book, but Chen’s analysis is often totally misogynistic as well, basically amounting to ‘women are only happy when married with children’. In part it is just a reflection of the time, I can aknowledge that, but the way that Chen is obviously meant to be sympathetic and seems to be almost an author avatar at times (they’re both poets and members of the Chinese Writers’ Association) made me super awkward. And I just can’t fell comfortable with a character when the third-person limited perspective is that skeevey.
Which, as I started off saying, all contributes to me not feeling very much in the way of interest in Chief Inspector Chen. He’s meant to be a bright young thing. An intellectual young police officer with a promising political career ahead and a private yearning for a ‘normal’ family life. Also everybody but everybody in the book thinks he’s awesome and freely tells everyone else how awesome and ”promising’ he is. But his poetical digressions slow the book down and did nothing for me, and he seemed almost completely disinterested in the case (despite the narration frequently trying to convince me that it had taken over his life). And a disinterested detective makes for a disinterested reader. There’s no real urgency to solve the murder for most of the book, just endless descriptions about how the communist party works. And if the author and the main character can’t seem to bring themselves to care about the actual murder case, why should I?
Having said all that – and I realise it’s a lot of negaive stuff, more so than I expected when I started this review – I’ll repeat again: it’s not a ‘bad’ book. Lots of people far more clever than I am think it’s a very good book, it just contains several elements that personally irritate and/or bore me. There was enough of a good idea here and, when the book finally picked up, enough good writing, that I’m not going to write Qiu Xiaolong off just yet. Perhaps a lot of what I disliked can be ascribed to first-novel-nerves and the concept, if not always the execution, was very interesting. I’m not exactly going to go hunting down the rest of this series or anything, but if I see one of them on the library shelf and I feel in the right mood I might just give it a go.
2.5 stars from me – solidly in the middle. Didn’t like it, didn’t really dislike it.