© 2009 Qiu Xiaolong
This novel's title caught my attention, but the setting hooked me. A police mystery set in contemporary China? Eager to explore what is for me terra incognita, I happily settled in to join Chief Inspector Chen Cao, working for Shanghai's police bureau. Chen is an experienced investigator both honest and capable, although he never intended to be a cop. He prefers poetry, in fact, and his fluency in English has merited him some success in translating Chinese poetry into English verse and vice versa. He prefers poetry, in fact, and his fluency in English allows him to publish translations of poetic verse between that and his native tongue. Although Internal Security doesn't have Chen's poetic gifts in mind when "requesting" his assistance in a politically volatile case, the soul of a poet dovetails nicely with the demands of a cop in this mystery.
The granddaughter of one of Mao's former mistresses is believed to be in possession of an item from her grandmother's years as Mao's mistress and consort, and item that could be used to embarrass the legacy of Mao and undermine support of his Party. Government security gives Chen two weeks to approach the young woman, earn her trust, and resolve the situation without any embarrassment to the Party. They have no idea what the item is, but if Chen doesn't find out within those two weeks, they'll resort to more traditional means of finding out the information from the girl -- means as imaginative as they are cruel.
Chen is not cruel. Like Steven Saylor's Gordianus the Finder, he is an essentially decent man trapped in a world of corruption and meanness. Though Communist in name, modern China's prosperity is built on ruthless capitalist efficiency. Peasants toil in factories hardly recognizable from those of the Gilded Age, while the government -- which supposedly represents the People and protects them from exploitation -- prefers the profits these business practices bring to the well-being of its people. As lax as the laws are in governing business, some -- like those operated by the Triads -- do not see fit to operate within its bounds, employing gangsters to enforce cooperation among potential customers.
Any dealing with Mao's troublesome legacy is bound to be problematic. The Founder of modern China's legacy was tainted by the violence of the Cultural Revolution, but the corruption and poverty that followed with his successors cause many in China to look with longing to his Golden Age. Chen has no interest in the case, though he has little choice but accept it as his responsibility -- for the will of the party is an unavoidable maelstrom. Dutifully, he begins an investigation partially assisted by his retired mentor. Chen draws his history as an author and interests in poetry to approach people who would have shrunk away from a uniformed cop, each new name sending him deeper into the past, to Mao's days a revolutionary hiding from Nationalist troops in the mountains.
Qiu's setting prompted me to check the book out, and it remained the most vital element of the book. Modern China is a fascinating world of contradictions, of disparate philosophies melting into the other: traditional and modern dogma produce people as obsessed by nostalgia for the days of Imperial China as they are with the legacy of Mao. Qiu's setting is immersive: being an immigrant to the US from China himself, he uses Chinese metaphors, symbols, and poetic allusions to draw the reader in. Poetry is particularly pervasive: Chen and Mao are forever occupied by it, which is not surprising given that Qiu is a published translator of poetry. Mao's own poems are plot elements, and a reader who pays attention to expressions within them may easily beat Chen to the punch.
As a mystery novel, The Mao Case has weaknesses: Chen is extraordinarily lucky in habitually bumping him into helpful and chatty people, the first example being a retired Red Guard member he literally stumbles into at a bar he just chanced to decided to go into. The mystery broadens throughout the novel and crashes in on itself in the final dozen pages, playing a somewhat discredited trope rather hard. Despite this weakness, I enjoyed the novel for its setting and main character. My library has a few more books in the Inspector Chen series, and I'll be reading them.