–By Nora Fitzgerald
The world is crazier than a crime novel. So says ex-chief inspector for the Shanghai Police Bureau, Chen Cao, to himself in Shanghai Redemption (just released in paperback by Minotaur Books) when he—surprising this reader—briefly breaks the fourth wall and reveals that he’s the main character in a crime novel. And that he sees this genre as no match for the absurdity of the high-level political corruption and villainy he’s become caught up in.
Shanghai Redemption is the latest crime novel by Qiu Xiaolong, a poet, writer and academic who was forced to remain in the United States at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests, subsequently making his home in the States. He writes his novels and poetry in English and shows in this book an admirable deftness for idiom and an appreciation of Chinese proverbs and poetry that he uses in Chen’s narration and analysis of the events involving his mysterious persecution by unknown forces.
Chen is on the run throughout the book. As chief inspector for the Shanghai police, he was well known and respected by the public for his competence and honesty. He’s been promoted out of that job, however, and to anyone who understands Communist Party politics, it’s clear that his removal from the Police Bureau to become the director of a vague legal Committee is essentially a demotion, despite the higher rank. The first mystery to solve is why this was done to him.
The book opens with Chen visiting his father’s grave away from Shanghai at the time of the Qingming Festival when people present offerings at the family grave and renew their relationships with the dead. Chen is partly using this act of filial devotion to avoid the Bureau while he thinks about what to do given the unfortunate turn in his career. But before he can act he accepts an invitation to speak at a literary event that turns out to likely have been a pretext for setting him up in a sex scandal, disgracing him and removing him from the public eye completely. He narrowly avoids being caught in this trap when his mother calls and he makes a quick exit from the young women who have been assigned to seduce him.
From this time, Chen stays tenuously in touch with his boss, whom he distrusts, while he looks for answers. With help mainly from his partner, Detective Yu Guangming and Yu’s wife Peiqin, from a female friend he refers to as White Cloud, and from a client from his private investigation consulting business, he pieces together much of the story that explains why he was removed from his position. But that’s a minor point amid a larger political scandal going to the highest levels of government that emerges as the real driver of events.
China, despite its new openness, is still not entirely familiar to most Western readers. This novel gives fans of the crime novel a look at contemporary life in China’s new economy and what has become a more open Socialist society. But Party control is hardly a thing of the past, and while Xiaolong avoids the word Communist, the novel’s characters are in fear of overstepping boundaries still maintained by the government. More to the point, they are trying to evade the heavy surveillance that is still an everyday part of their lives.
In order to do so, Chen spends a lot of time swapping out SIM cards and handing over new cell phones to the people helping him, so they can contact him safely. They meet each other in parks and out-of-the-way noodle shops and mah-jongg parlors. A couple of people, including a renowned hacker, use their expertise with technology to gather information for him. Ex-Chief Inspector Chen is obviously a very likable man and people go out of their way to help him. Unfortunately a couple of them end up dead or seriously injured for their troubles.
Besides the fact that it’s set in China, what gives this mystery novel a distinction is that Chen and his friends find in proverbs, poetry and opera not just a distraction from their daily lives, as it might be said Westerners who care for such things do. For Chen these art forms play into the very foundation of his consciousness, they help order his thinking. He throws out passages of poetry frequently, to friends, foes and strangers alike. They respond appreciatively. Poetry must be such an integral part of all Chinese life that it wasn’t unusual for a waitress, coming to serve Chen, to ask, “Are you writing a poem, sir,” just because he was holding a pen over a piece of paper thoughtfully. To a Westerner’s ears, that would be taken as a joke.
What strikes Chen as crazy, on the other hand, is finding such a severe deception by officials over the public, and the false and rapacious relationships they have with their wives and girlfriends (generally they have both). Also crazy was the cover-up of a murder, and all of the political corruption and maneuverings that he witnessed as he investigated the reasons for why he was pushed from his job.
From all accounts, these things are hardly unheard of in China. But as chief inspector, Chen investigated murders of a more mundane type and never before found himself in such a deeply corrupt environment. Crazy is as good a way to describe such a hopeless and demoralizing situation as any other.