This will obviously be an interesting, and perhaps tougher, week for our merry band of book bloggers (although there are probably a few crime fiction novels starting with words like Quiet or Queen). I was tempted to cover Ellery Queen, but as I did so with my "E" post, that would seem a bit too lazy on my part. Instead, I decided to take a short look at an author I haven't read yet, but that is in my TBR pile, as I came across one of their latest books (THE MAO CASE) in a Kuala Lumpur airport bookstore, on the way back from Cairo to Auckland earlier this year: Chinese-born crime novelist Qiu Xiaolong.
Although he now lives with his wife and daughter in St Louis in the United States, Qiu Xiaolong (pronounced "chew-shao-long") was born and raised in Shanghai, and spent his first 35 years living and working in China. His interest interest in literature and poetry apparently developed when he was bedridden with bronchitis while in his teens. He published prize-winning poetry, translation and criticism in Chinese in the 1980s, and became a member of the Chinese Writers’ Association.
In 1988, he travelled to the United States to study as a Ford Foundation Fellow, started writing in English, and obtained a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Washington University. Any original intentions to return to China after his studies were curtailed when, following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, a newspaper apparently reported on Qiu Xialong's previous fundraising efforts for Chinese students, and he was forced to remain in America to avoid persecution by the Communist Governent.
Qiu Xiaolong published his first English-language crime novel, DEATH OF A RED HEROINE, in 2000. The story introduces his recurring hero, Chief Inspector Chen Cao, and focuses on the investigation of a murder of a national model worker. Chen is an intriguing and unique protagonist; a published poet (like Qiu Xialong himself), as well as a 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.
I have not yet read Qiu Xialong's work (although I am looking forward to it), but I understand that his detective stories are acclaimed for the way in which they blend an interesting mystery, with comments on modern day (1990s) China. In particular they shine a light on a time when the burgeoning superpower was struggling to shift from old world socialism to new world capitalism, with all the trials and tribulations that entails. Qiu's debut won him the Anthony Award in 2001 for Best First Novel, as well as a nomination for an Edgar Award.
In an interview with Cara Black for Mystery Readers International, Qiu agreed that his separation from his home country allowed him to analyse and write about the political and social situation in a way in which he may not have been able to, had he stayed. "I used to write in Chinese, in China, and writing here in English has not been easy," he says. "But it provides me with a different perspective, as if I were both an insider and an outsider simultaneously. And with a value system too, so to speak. There are two lines by the Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo, which I have quoted in one of the books, "You cannot see the true face of Mount Lu, / Because you are in the mountains."
You can read the rest of a very interesting Q&A with Qiu Xiaolong, by Cara Black, here.
In DEATH OF A RED HEROINE, Chen has to investigate the murder of Guan Hongying, a young woman celebrated as a National Model Worker, but who kept her personal life strictly and mysteriously confidential. Chen and his comrade, Detective Yu, must use varying methods to investigate the high-profile death while dealing with frightened neighbours and potential witnesses, and tip-toeing around touchy politics.
In a Guardian article in August 2007, Beijing-based author Catherine Sampson included DEATH OF A RED HEROINE as one of the 'top 10 Asian crime fiction' novels (in fact it was listed at #1, although I'm not sure whether the list was ordered, so to speak). Sampson says, "The book has a gentle feel to it which makes the violence of murder even more shocking. It is a vivid description of present day Shanghai, and the satisfying ending is utterly believable."
The Wall Street Journal also ranked it as one of the top 5 political novels of all time, saying "Set in 1990s Shanghai, "Death of a Red Heroine" is an intriguing detective yarn as well as a commentary on how the Communist Party remains the controlling force in most aspects of ordinary life in China... Mr. Qiu can write so accurately about life in the new China because he was born and grew up there; he can write so candidly because he now lives in the U.S., where he teaches at Washington University in St. Louis."
Five more Inspector Chen books have followed that debut; A LOYAL CHARACTER DANCER (2002), WHEN RED IS BLACK (2004), A CASE OF TWO CITIES (2006), RED MANDARIN DRESS (2007), and last year's THE MAO CASE (the book in my TBR pile). Qiu has also published two volumes of poetry.
In THE MAO CASE, Chen is continuing to gain prestige among the party cadre, then is assigned a case so delicate he must keep it secret from the Special Case team and even from his junior 'partner' Yu. A young woman with black ancestors, Jiao has suddenly risen from poverty and appears at parties dedicated to reliving the glory days of the 1930s. Internal Security is worried about Jiao’s growing power and especially about her connection to Mao (her grandmother was one of Mao’s lovers), a link that could protect her from any kind of official censure. Using Mao’s poetry and a censored biography, Chen investigates, posing as a rich businessman and aspiring writer, and delves deep into the murk of the Cultural Revolution, uncovering Jiao’s family history and her real connections to Mao.
Qiu talks about the origins of his latest book, THE MAO CASE, in a letter to his readers on his website, which you can read here.
Have you read Qiu Xiaolong? For those in the USA, have you met him or seen him appear at any literary or crime fiction festivals etc? Do detective stories set in China interest you? Thoughts and comments welcome.