Friday, March 21, 2008

Book Review: A Case of Two Cities by Qiu Xiaolong

A slightly different version of this review was published first at Blogcritics magazine, Book Review: A Case of Two Cities by Qiu Xiaolong:
"Inspector Chen investigates from Shanghai to Los Angeles to St. Louis to bring murderous businessmen to justice."

While writing up my notes from the discussion and interview with Qiu Xiaolong, I had the pleasure of reading both the fourth Inspector Chen novel, A Case of Two Cities and the fifth novel, Red Mandarin Dress. A Case of Two Cities is a politically-and socially-relevant mystery that pits Inspector Chen against corrupt, high-ranking Communist Party members who are increasingly involved in shady business deals associated with the increasing economic development in China.

I've written elsewhere (at Blogcritics Magazine and on my environmental blog) about the environmental problems (and some good news) associated with China's rapid industrial expansion. The realities of China's New Economics are brought to life by author Qiu in many ways. For example, we meet loyal state workers who live on a fixed pension and can barely survive in the face of inflation, and we learn of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes in preparation for new skyscrapers and country clubs. However, there are far more nefarious deeds for Inspector Chen to contend with: the Inspector must handle the murder of an old friend, threats against his elderly mother and attempts on his own life, all while dealing with intense political danger, in the course of trying to bring rogue officials and businessmen to justice.

The language in A Case of Two Cities is a pleasure, with occasional quotes from classical Chinese poetry and T. S. Eliot, and phrases that echo Eliot's lines sprinkled throughout to capture the mood. Poetry is part of Chen's personal language in the same manner that a soundtrack or inner dialog for contemporary U.S. detectives might be based on music, including Jazz, Rock & Roll, Soul or Hip-Hop. Qiu's language works so well because he is a poet and a translator of poetry, so he can call upon classical Chinese or post-modern poetic imagery to fit a mood as easily as I might conjure up a Bob Dylan lyric.

The heart of the case is a series of lucrative land deals that could only have been made with insider knowledge of city planning, such as where new subway lines will be constructed and where land will become valuable overnight. The ringleader in the case, Xing, has already fled to the U.S., probably tipped off by colluding officials before an arrest could be made. Xing is now living in Los Angeles, in mansion next door to the son of a Chinese Politburo member. Xing has also applied for political asylum, claiming to be persecuted for political reasons. Outwardly, the Chinese authorities are angry about this request for asylum, but many of these same authorities the partners who became rich alongside Xing.

It turns out that much of the empire Xing built was helped along by new luxury clubs that cater to the baser desires of Shanghai businessmen, and, of course, their new interest in golf. Many deals are made because of favors provided in private rooms, along with hard cash in a red envelope, the traditional bribe for Communist Party officials.

Chen tries to reject cynicism, but this is a battle he loses a little more with each book in the series of novels. He works hard to follow orders, even though they may intend for him to create more of a spectacle than a real investigation. Can Chen achieve more than a hollow victory? Will he be able to keep his promises to himself and his dead Chinese friend while pursuing the big fish?

In the middle of a tense Shanghai investigation, Police Inspector Chen is suddenly sent out of the country to lead a literary delegation to the U.S. This role is not completely incongruous because Chen is a published poet, noted translator of T. S. Eliot and member of the Chinese Writers' Association as well as a police inspector; he had hoped to pursue an academic career before the government diverted his career to the police force. However, the timing is highly suspicious and the reason why he received this assignment is not clear: is it to remove him from the scene in Shanghai or to bring him close to the fugitive Xing? For that matter, what exactly is the purpose of the literary delegation? It starts out innocently enough, but after a week, nearly everyone involved seems to have a hidden agenda and several are keeping an eye on Chen. As leader of the group, Chen is in the uncomfortable position of having to lead daily political study sessions.

With Chen in America, his associate Detective Yu must carry on the investigation in Shanghai. Yu is essentially alone except for his wife and father, a retired policeman known as Old Hunter. These three try to keep Chen's elderly mother safe while tracking down Xing's hidden half-brother, Ming, who may still be in China and, because of the power of Chinese filial piety, could help unravel the case. Ming was the intermediary who obtained insider information from corrupt Director Jiang of the Shanghai City Land Development Office.

His part of the investigation shifted to the U.S., Inspector Chen wonders if he'll have a chance to rekindle his relationship with his American friend Catherine Rohn, the U.S. Marshal he met in A Loyal Character Dancer. Chen wonders about other questions, also: how will his estranged High-Society girlfriend, ensconced in the politics of Beijing, help or hurt his chances for survival? Are Politburo members trying to derail Chen's work when he discovers too much, are they trying to put him in harm's way, or are there even more layers of intrigue to sift through? With the battle raging on so many fronts, Chen must plan his attack like a master of the Chinese chess game, Wei Qi (better known in the U.S. by its Japanese name, go).

The interaction of the Chinese literary delegation with American writers and academics reveals misunderstandings of cuisine and culture, bitter and amusing ironies, and ignorance of history: expatriate Chinese are producing “deep sea fish oil” coveted in China for its "Made in the U.S.A." label; proud Chinese delegates can find no copies of their books in the university library, let alone the bookstore. Key quotes include:

  • Nonsmoking area… Is this a free country?
  • I talked to an American student today...They believe that Hong Kong belongs to Britain (and) know nothing of the Opium War. There is nothing in their textbooks.
  • Pearl told me that Pizza Hut is a cheap fast-food restaurant here. In Beijing, it is a high-end place.
  • What an irony. We never had fortune cookies in China.
Given the unintended affronts, a relatively successful academic conference takes place in Los Angeles, along with a secret investigation by Chen, and the literary delegation then moves on to St. Louis in search of Mark Twain, known as Master Ma. Twain is a particular favorite among some Chinese writers because his satire, Running for Governor, is "a lampoon against hypocritical American Democracy." For his own part, Chen is happy to visit St. Louis to hunt for artifacts of T. S. Eliot' s life and reunite with Catherine Rohn, who lives in the St. Louis suburb, University City.

Even though Chen is able to work with Catherine, who is able to masquerade as a translator in St. Louis because of her knowledge of Chinese, their relationship has been strained by time and distance; can it be salvaged? Eventually, Chen finds a quiet moment to sort through many of his feelings in a restaurant bar located close to Catherine's house (and close my own). Chen struggles to shrug off the hesitancy that T. S. Eliot described so well,* to be decisive with Catherine, and to move forward in his investigation. To survive, he must navigate the immense and contradictory forces that shape life and death in contemporary Shanghai. If you enjoy great fiction or compelling and complex mysteries, you'll want to join him.

*From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot:
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
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