Virtual travel in depth

That’s, for me, one of the characteristics of first-rate genre fiction, especially in the thriller and crime genres. And some are superb in this regard.

Second to none is Qiu Xiaolong.

6133e30cb1f7339affff809affffe904Qiu Xiaolong [on the right] was born in Shanghai, China. He is the author of the award-winning Inspector Chen series of mystery novels, 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), and The Mao Case (2009). He is also the author of two books of poetry translations, Treasury of Chinese Love Poems(2003) and Evoking T’ang (2007), and his own poetry collection, Lines Around China (2003). Qiu’s books have sold over a million copies and have been published in twenty languages. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.

I enthused about Death of a Red Heroine in October 2006.

Death of a Red Heroine resonates with me, because this is M’s city, and much of the novel is in the precise time and place when M knew Shanghai best; it also happens that one of M’s closest friends was a policeman in Shanghai, and thereby hangs an interesting tale indeed. Suffice to say I will probably pass the book on to M when I have finished it; I am sure he will recognise something on almost every page. M’s sister also happens to be a journalist/literary critic, as is one of the principal female characters in the novel.

If you want an authentic feel for what it is like living in China, and how the locals negotiate the politics and the system, and you want something that goes way beyond stereotypes, then read this book.

ss10 A Case of Two Cities is just as good.

Qiu Xiaolong’s books offer a look at modern day China while usually providing a very satisfying mystery story. While I found some problems with the last book in the series, I quickly became involved in this story and enjoyed it.

Telling a crime story set in a foreign country requires the author to ‘translate’, to offer the story in a way that makes sense to the reader who may never have been to that country. Certainly, relatively few Americans are likely to have visited China but author Qiu provides us with an accessible narrative. That this tale takes place in part in America provides another angle. While the author has lived in the US for over 15 years, he’s Chinese, born in Shanghai and knows the culture and the country. The changes in recent years are manifold and Qiu shows that understanding them isn’t the easiest thing for those who live with them.

Add to these lessons (an inaccurate word as there are seldom any ‘teach-y’ moments, as you understand from reading, not from exposition) the trip that Chief Inspector Chen Cao takes to the United States in this story. He is not only representing China here, but is also meeting with expatriate Chinese members of the community in Los Angeles. Chen is acutely aware that what he does and says is known back home.

He has a slight advantage – his command of English is a major reason he is on this trip – but he’s still very much a stranger in a very strange land. His primary purpose is investigation, to track someone who has fled China and now lives in the US. Untangling the threads of investment, connections and corruption are a major part of the investigation and Chen really would like to be in two places at once. On the other hand, his friend Catherine is back in America, with her knowledge of China and her qualifications at a translator, meaning of course that they end up thrown back together – not an easy time for either of them.

I was reminded throughout this book of the differences between our cultures and was fascinated. Chen is a famous poet and is a member of the Writers’ Association (we have nothing similar). Chen is extremely familiar with huge amounts of poetry of his land, which comes to mind all the time, as do classic novels. He’s at ease quoting dozens of poets from hundreds of years ago; I can’t imagine how anyone’s brain stores all that. His friends and colleagues quote from THE DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER with ease. His thoughts and comments are peppered with proverbs and poems which I found often to be totally incomprehensible.

There are dozens of these touches that teach about the culture and ways of modern (and to some extent ancient) China and at all times the story moved, the characters were intriguing, aware, multi-dimensional. The story being told never got lost in the many details…

I was unbothered by the cultural allusions that reviewer finds “incomprehensible” – but then I have been sharing, through M and others, and learning about Chinese culture for over two decades now. It is a constant reminder that western superiority is often merely western ignorance. Qiu Xiaolong as an admirable cultural bridge as well as a first-rate mystery writer.

See also:

Now another journey.


That’s South African Deon Meyer, whose books are translated from Afrikaans. As well as being a good story, Devil’s Peak (linked above) is – to compare it with what I glean from people who know like my friend Sirdan – a very thoughtful journey into the life and mind of today’s South Africa.

The third journey is to the far north-east of England: Martyn Waites, White Riot.

Martyn Waites doesn’t believe in sparing the gore. To offset that, he is very good at engaging the reader’s interest and writes about topics that are of contemporary interest. WHITE RIOT deals with the unpleasant – but all too possible – subject of racial discrimination and racial violence in the northern English city of Newcastle.

The tale begins with a kidnapping and murder. A victim is taunted with the Muslim beliefs of his parents. He, perhaps, is not convinced of the validity of the notion of the numerous virgins that await him in the imminent paradise that he is about to enter — or not.

Kev’s mate Jason is scheduled for slaughter by a ruthless group, at first unknown by the reader. Jason has been dubbed The Butcher Boy, a reflection of his job but it seems as though someone else intends butchering him.

Peta Knight, an associate of former journalist Joe Donovan, is hired by one Trevor Whitman. Whitman has written a tell-all book detailing his time with a right-wing group calling itself The Hollow Men. He has been receiving threatening phone calls which he wishes Peta to investigate.

Joe Donovan, meanwhile, is still trying to investigate the kidnapping of his son. Years later, he seems finally to have located the boy’s whereabouts but the people who have the boy in their care and have adopted him hold him close and Joe seems to be no nearer to being reunited with his son – and his relationship with his wife and daughter is fractured. All Joe wants is to retrieve David and to have a family once more.

Waites is truly a master at building tension. He also has no scruples when it comes to subjecting his characters to violence and, indeed, death. He constructs a plot that is at once horrific yet believable. Not the least of the horrors is the concept of people cold-bloodedly manipulating True Believers into actions they probably would not contemplate, were they privy to the machinations of their leaders. The portraits of his characters are well drawn and, alas, convincing.

The author seems to delight in cliffhangers. Somehow, I wish he wouldn’t. When his next book in the series is released, no doubt I’ll have to reread at least part of this one. Perhaps I need to take a memory course!

I agree pretty much with all that. I admire the book’s politics too: very insightful and rather enlightened.

Just a note: the Emerging Writers’ Festival currently happening in Melbourne looks quite amazing!