When the body of a strangled woman is pulled from a disused canal, the investigation falls to the Shanghai Police Bureau’s special case squad by accident - one of its members is the only detective available to take the call. When he learns what has happened, Chief Inspector Chen Cao decides to postpone handing the case over to another squad. After all, his promotion over the heads of older men has ruffled a few feathers, and what better way to prove oneself in the Homicide Division than by actually solving a murder?
The victim is soon identified as Guan Hongying, a national model worker who seemingly lived for her job and the Communist Party. Commissar Zhang, who’s acting as adviser (meaning he’s past retirement age but too high-ranking to be obliged to exist on a pension) insists that the case is political, but Chief Inspector Chen is not convinced. He and his assistant, Detective Yu - with some suitable prodding from the women in their lives - go digging for the private life that surely existed. What they find leads straight to a prime suspect with connections in the highest echelons of Shanghai politics, and a lack of obvious motive. When word gets out he and Yu find themselves suddenly required elsewhere - like out-of-town conferences and traffic control. And Internal Security is already watching Chen, thanks to concerns as to whether some of the poetry he’s published might be ideologically ambiguous. But Chen has acquired a sense of kinship with Guan Hongying, and he’s not about to let political considerations get in the way of bringing her killer to justice.
Having, some weeks ago, been unimpressed by the amount of armchair travelling I’ve done, especially in Asia, seeing a crime novel set in 1990 China was far too good an opportunity to pass up. As I read it I could almost smell the pork buns and pollution; for one average-size novel it opened an extraordinary window through which to observe all things Chinese: Traditional culture, Communism, the emerging free market, history, legends, food, crowded urban life, and gorgeous poetry of all eras. It was impossible not to be impressed by the vibrancy of a city where most people had barely a few square metres to call their own and the state could exert an unnerving amount of control. Which could include assigning people to jobs regardless of location or qualifications ... which is how Chen ended up in the police. What I loved about him was his determination to do the best job he could, regardless of whether or not he liked it, and keep his love of literature alive by moonlighting as a poet and mystery-novel translator (an example there for all of us who’ve chosen careers for practicality rather than preference).
It says a lot about the quality of the characters that I was left with a soft spot for even Commissar Zhang and Party Secretary Li, with their emphasis on politics (and political expediency) and solving crimes by relying on the people. Watching their interactions and inner dilemmas was just as rewarding as seeing the murder being solved. The case changes them; they change each other; and they don’t always make the easy or expected decisions. (And I do love it when male police officers need a woman or two to explain the workings of the female mind and nudge them in the right direction. It’s sort of endearing, that they can’t understand us sufficiently on their own.) I’m delighted that this is the first in a series, because I want to read about them again.
All this, and a great mystery, too. Although she hardly appears except as a corpse or a photograph, Guan has as strong a presence in the novel as any of the living characters. Largely this is due to Chen’s identification with her; you can see her life through his, and through the differences between them. The pace doesn’t flag as the case shifts from a dead end, to an active investigation, to a circumstantial case with no motive, to a case where the only loose end is what might happen. (When the good of the Party is prone to trumping everything else, things are unlikely to end as neatly as they do in Ruth Rendell’s Kingsmarkham.) It’s a felony perfectly fitted to its place and time, and its resolution comes with a good dose of irony.
There was only one thing I didn’t like, and that was having to set the book aside and go mentally rummaging through my home town. At one point Chen renewed contact with a certain lovely librarian he’d known in his university days, and who, alas, left the country for a temporary position at the Canberra Library. Uh ... might one possibly mean the National Library? That’s the only candidate I could think of, and I’m quite sure there are no archives I’ve forgotten. Though I’ll grant that the overwhelming majority of readers would be blissfully unaware that any mistake had been made; it’s just bad luck that this particular reader/reviewer happens to be a native of that particular city.