book: Death of a Red Heroine (2000) by Qiu Xiaolong

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Shanghai and environs, 1990.

It’s purely by chance that the strangled body of model worker Guan Hongying is found dumped in a remote canal; by all rights she could have remained there undisturbed for decades. Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Homicide Division’s Special Case Squad is put on the case, alongside his somewhat resentful sidekick Detective Yu Guangming. Soon they discover there’s one single, obvious suspect for the killing: high-flying photographer Wu Xiaoming.

The trouble is that Wu is an HCC — a High Cadre Child. He’s the son of one of the old High Cadres, the elderly Maoists who still wield great political power in China, even despite the recently retired Deng Xiaoping’s modernizations. That means the case is a political one, not just a criminal one.

Chen is a poet who, having been made a cop by circumstances, is doing his best to make himself a good one. Yu is purely a cop — the cop father of a cop son. They’re neither of them politicians. Yet somehow they must navigate the treacherous waters of politics as they attempt to bring the murderer to justice . . .

Rather in the same way that the murder case turns out to be a political case, Death of a Red Heroine, despite being ostensibly a murder mystery, turns out to be a political/historical novel masquerading as a police procedural. As noted, from fairly early on there’s no real mystery as to the identity of the killer, although Chen and Yu spend a lot of time filling in all the gaps in their case. What is held back a while is the matter of Wu’s motive for killing his erstwhile lover, but even that’s not very hard for us as readers to deduce — although it takes Chen a very long time to get there.

I picked this book up without looking at it too carefully on the assumption that it was a translation of a Chinese novel; in fact, it was originally published in English, Qiu Xiaolong being a Chinese national who, at some point in adulthood, moved here to the States and became a US citizen. Even so, I found myself checking two or three times to make sure it hadn’t been rendered from the Chinese (perhaps the author had translated his own original?) because the text is written in that curious not-quite-English that used to be characteristic of translated fiction — “His cigarette had been consumed without his awareness” was an example that especially clobbered me, but there were countless others.

Another oddity was the plethora, especially in the earlier parts of the book, of conversations in the “I know we both know this already but I’m going to tell you anyway” mode. Clearly someone had told Qiu that he should be wary of infodumps; the result is that we have, for example, two Shanghai residents telling each other for several paragraphs what the taxi situation was like in Shanghai just a few years ago — a piece of information that could have been conveyed in straight text in a sentence, and a not very long sentence at that.

Despite all the crudity of the text, I found Death of a Red Heroine exerted its own quite strong fascination over me, primarily because of the background. Even though Deng had opened up China so much, the situation is frequently, claustrophobically reminiscent of that in Winston Smith’s Airstrip One: you have to be careful what you say and what you do, and often enough conversations will have a carefully veiled meaning at odds with their innocuous surface. Qiu doesn’t let us forget that China was still at heart a totalitarian state, opening itself to Western influences and economics and freedoms, yes, but at the same time instinctively fiercely resistant to them.

What made the novel’s totalitarian backdrop seem even more chilling to me was the way it contrasted so radically with the obviously widespread sexual permissiveness on display. I’d always assumed that people in Communist China were pretty chaste — too busy reading Mao’s quotations, or whatever — but clearly this was far from true. (I’m assuming Qiu’s portrait of the age is authentic; he was there during it, after all.) Yet clearly the sexual liberation went only so far; the plot actually hinges, in part, on one of the limitations on “social acceptability” that were still in place.

So, despite all the creakiness of the text, and despite the fact that the book is grossly overlong, I found Death of a Red Heroine oddly appealing. Even as I swore and groaned at it, I found myself thinking that I’d not be averse to another outing alongside Chen and Yu at some point in the future. It was only after I’d finished the novel that I realized that, on a remote and dusty bookshelf, I have a copy of one of the later volumes in the series, The Mao Case, which I picked up a few years back. So I expect I’ll be reading it sooner rather than later. Mercifully that one’s a bit shorter.

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