Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review of Death of a Red Heroine by Qui Xiaolong (Sceptre, 2000)

1990 and Shanghai is in a process of rapid change as China starts to embrace a new economic future whilst trying to maintain its Communist political system. A young woman’s body is found by two fishermen in a remote canal and Chief Inspector Chen of the special cases unit is assigned to investigate the murder. A successful poet and translator, with influential supporters, Chen’s career is on an upward curve. It soon becomes though apparent that the victim was no ordinary system and the case soon takes on a political dimension and when the evidence starts to point to towards the involvement of high ranking political figures Chen finds himself under threat, relying on his contacts to maintain his position. For an official on the rise the sensible route is to protect the party and pass the case over to internal security, but Chen and his assistant Detective Yu wish to see justice done even if it means endangering themselves and their families.

I finished Death of a Red Heroine a couple of days ago and its being playing on my mind a bit. It was a book I nearly stopped reading twice (once about a fifth of the way in, the other about halfway), but in the end I decided to soldier on to its conclusion. In many ways the book was interesting, detailing the political and societal changes taking place in China in the early 1990s and the nature of Chinese social and familial relations, and some of the poetry was appealing. The story itself though was fairly long winded and could have done with a bit of an edit. My real difficulties though were two-fold. First, was Chief Inspector Chen. Most of his colleagues wonder how he’d been promoted to chief inspector so quickly, especially given his relative lack of experience, and I have to say I did as well. As a detective he was fairly hopeless, missing clues that stuck out a mile and not following up on the most obvious of leads. This wouldn’t have been too bad if he’d been written as a bumbling cop in the Clouseau mode, but he’s meant to be a bit of an intellectual. Second, Chen is meant to be a busy cop investigating several cases and overseeing a specialist unit, yet he hardly seems to break sweat and has time to take things at a very leisurely pace. Overall, I just wasn’t convinced as to the main character or the investigation, which was a shame as there were many aspects of the book to like, especially the description of the history and politics of the new China.

1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Rob,
Thanks for the thoughtful review. I agree with you about how important it is that the sleuth be a believable character! The way you describe Chen, he doesn't strike me as a sleuth I'd really expect to see in real life. That kind of thing, to me, makes a book a real disappointment.