Death of a red heroine

The rain has soaked the hair
Falling to your shoulders
Light green in your policewoman’s
Uniform, like the spring
White blossom bursting
From your arms reaching
Into the gaping windows –
‘Here you are!’

About the last thing I expected from this detective novel was a poetry-spouting Chief Inspector.

Chen not only recites classical Chinese poetry but is himself a published poet – as well as a translator of western poems and even mysteries. And he is a bit of a gourmet as well.

I love when writers detail meals. All too often I read of how characters ‘sat down to dinner’ and I’m just dying to know, yes but what exactly did they eat??

So when we first meet Chief Inspector Chen as he is prepping for a housewarming dinner at his new apartment, I am delighted:

“For the main dishes, there were chunks of pork stomach on a bed of green napa, thin slices of smoked carp spread on fragile leaves of jicai, and steamed peeled shrimp with tomato sauce. There was also a platter of eels with scallions and ginger, which he had ordered from a restaurant. He had opened a can of Meiling steamed pork, and added some green vegetables to it to make another dish. On the side, he placed a small dish of sliced tomatoes, and another of cucumbers. When the guests arrived, a soup would be made from the juice of the canned pork and canned pickle.”

It sounds like an interesting mix of gourmet and simple homecooked dishes, which reflects on the character of Inspector Chen. An educated man and a published poet who attended the Beijing Foreign Language College, he then heads the Shanghai Police Bureau’s Special Case Squad, a job that seems to be a bit at odds with his more intellectual, thoughtful personality.

But of course his insightfulness is key to this case.

“She had been lying there, abandoned, naked, her long dark hair in a coil across her throat, like a snake, in full view of two strangers, only to be carried away on a stretcher by a couple of white uniformed men, and in time, opened up by an elderly medical man who examined her insides, mechanically, and sewed the body together again before it was finally sent to the mortuary. And all that time Chief Inspector Chen had been celebrating in his new apartment, having a housewarming party, drinking, dancing with a young woman reporter, talking about Tang dynasty poetry, and stepping on her bare toes.”

Essentially, there is a dead woman whose body has been unceremoniously dumped in a garbage bag and tossed into a canal. It turns out that she is a celebrity in the political sense, as she is National Model Worker Guan Hongying, chosen as a role model by the Party. There soon emerges to be even greater political implications in this case, and Chen – as well as his subordinate Detective Yu – is forced to choose between doing what’s right for the case and the victim, or what’s right as determined by the Party.

Politics is at the heart of this story.

“‘Everything can be seen in terms of politics,’ Chen got up, pausing in the doorway, ‘but politics is not everything.’
Such talk was possible now, though hardly regarded as in good taste politically. There had been opposition to Chen’s attaining promotion – something expressed by his political enemies when they praised him as ‘open’, and by his political friends when they wondered if he was too open.”

There are High Cadres who are at the top of the ladder, and their privileged children, the High Cadre Children (HCC), who have fancy cars and live in large mansions and all those other aspects of an extravagant lifestyle. While Chen is himself a rising star (although his artistic side leads to some doubts) and has a new apartment to himself, he ranks far below these HCs and HCCs. And all of this contrasts with the life of the victim Guan, who despite her ‘celebrity’ status lived in a dormitory:

“A closer examination revealed many signs of neglect characteristic of such dorm buildings: gaping windows, scaling cement, peeling paint, and the smell from the public bathroom permeating the corridor. Apparently each floor shared only one bathroom. And a quarter of the bathroom had been redesigned with makeshift plastic partitions into a concrete shower area.”

Death of a Red Heroine was steeped in such vivid details of everyday life in 1990s Shanghai, both the lives of regular folk and of the privileged, sometimes surprisingly seedy.

I have to add a note of warning to those expecting a fast-paced, exciting crime/mystery novel. This isn’t quite that. The case moves a little slowly, not just because of all that politicking going on, but because the detectives take buses, they do research at the public library, and towards the end, are forced to surreptitiously pass information to each other. It’s complicated, but the book still flows well despite its length (464 pages).

I had a great time with this book, reading some bits of classic Chinese poetry, learning about life in 1990s China, and best of all, learning about the diverse cuisine of China. Although I am ethnically Chinese, Chinese food in Singapore is probably different from that of China (I can’t say for sure, as I’ve never been). Like the ‘across-the-bridge noodles’ (过桥米线 or guòqiáo mĭxiàn) that Detective Yu’s wife Peiqin cooks for Inspector Chen, essentially a platter of rice noodles served along with side dishes like slivers of pork, fish and vegetables, and of course some steaming hot soup.

(image from www.yfao.gov.cn)

The story behind the noodles, according to the book, was that during the Qing Dynasty, a scholar studied on an island, his wife had to carry his meals across a long bridge and when it reached him, the noodles were cold and soggy. So the next time, she kept the noodles separate and only mixed them when with her husband. A recipe can be found here.

I’m looking forward to the next Inspector Chen book, and can only hope that there will be plenty of foodie details to chow on.

Qiu Xiaolong’s works:
Detective Chen Series
Death of a Red Heroine (2000)
A Loyal Character Dancer (2002)
When Red Is Black (2004)
A Case of Two Cities (2006)
Red Mandarin Dress (2007)
The Mao Case (2009)
Don’t Cry, Tai Lake (2012)

Other Books
Lines Around China (poetry collection) (2003)
Years of Red Dust (2010)

Poetry translations
Treasury of Chinese Love Poems (2003)
Evoking T’ang (2007)

While not your typical mystery, I am still going to count this toward RIP ViI!

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4 thoughts on “Death of a red heroine

  1. I have no idea Qiu Xiaolong has written so many books so far. I have wanted to start with the first one but it took my a long while to come around and check it out from the library. With our affiliation to Chinese poetry, I think this would be entertaining read! Thanks for the review.

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  2. A poetry-reciting inspector, doesn’t sound like your typical policeman! I am surprised to read that there are still “model workers” and “high cadre children” in the 1990s. Those terms seem so outdated and belonging to the Mao period.

    Great review and fitting quotes, I need to pick up this one soon.

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