Death of a Red Heroine (Inspector Chen Series #1)

Death of a Red Heroine (Inspector Chen Series #1)

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by Qiu Xiaolong

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Contemporary Shanghai comes vividly to life in this new mystery series.

Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police must find the murderer of a National Model Worker, and then risk his own life and career to see that justice is done.

Qiu Xiaolong has published prizewinning poetry and criticism in China, has won awards and fellowships in the United

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Contemporary Shanghai comes vividly to life in this new mystery series.

Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police must find the murderer of a National Model Worker, and then risk his own life and career to see that justice is done.

Qiu Xiaolong has published prizewinning poetry and criticism in China, has won awards and fellowships in the United States, and now teaches Chinese literature at Washington University in St. Louis.

"Stupendous . . . hard-boiled, intricate plot and subtly developed characters . . . vivid picture of China in the 1990s . . . A matchless pearl." (Maureen Corrigan, "Fresh Air," National Public Radio)

"A marvelously assured debut . . . Engrossing, immensely readable." (The Wall Street Journal)

"Chen is an irresistible protagonist, likable and determined to make the honorable choice, no matter how dangerous." (Kirkus Reviews, pointer review)

". . . Xiaolong knows that words can save your soul and in his pungent, poignant mystery, he proves it on every page." (Chicago Tribune)

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Editorial Reviews

Carolyne A. Van Der Meer
There is nothing more arresting than seeing, for the first time, something you are normally not allowed to see. And that is precisely what Qiu Xialong's first mystery, Death of a Red Heroinedoes. The novel is a fascinating read because it sheds light on a lifestyle that is virtually unknown to western society.
Mystery Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set a decade ago in Shanghai, this political mystery offers a peek into the tightly sealed, often crooked world of post-Tiananmen Square China. Chen Cao, a poet and T.S. Eliot translator bureaucratically assigned to be chief inspector, has to investigate the murder of Guan Hongying, a young woman celebrated as a National Model Worker, but who kept her personal life strictly and mysteriously confidential. Chen and his comrade, Detective Yu, take turns interviewing Guan's neighbors and co-workers, but it seems most of them either know nothing or are afraid to talk openly about a deceased, highly regarded public figure. Maybe they shouldn't be so uneasy, some characters reason; after all, these are "modern times" and socialist China is taking great leaps toward free speech. Chen and Yu make headway when they stumble on Wu Xiaoming, senior editor of Red Star magazine, who apparently was involved with Guan before her death. Tiptoeing around touchy politics and using investigative tactics bordering on blackmail, Chen slowly pieces together the motives behind the crime. The author, himself a poet and critic, peppers the story with allusions to classical Chinese literature, juxtaposing poignant poetry with a gruesome murder so that the novel reads like the translation of an ancient text imposed over a modern tale of intrigue. This is an impressive and welcome respite from the typical crime novel. (June) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
The murder of a young woman found in a canal some distance from Shanghai threatens to go unnoticed and unsolved until someone identifies her as a well-known national model worker. Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a rapidly rising detective with a penchant for Tang and Song dynasty poetry, heads the case, which has become a sudden political event. Chen s investigation finally wheedles its way past the victim s false faAade and unloving neighbors to the dangerous perpetrator. In his first novel, the author, who published poetry and criticism in China and who teaches Chinese literature at Washington University in St. Louis, depicts a modern, changeable China, using focused prose, realistic depictions, and a very human protagonist. Recommended. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An engrossing first novel set in China during the 1990s that begins as a simple police procedural and then just keeps on getting more complex. A published poet and translator of T.S. Eliot, Chen Cao is not your ordinary chief inspector of homicide, and departmental gossip has it that powerful people have been unduly friendly to his career. Not that anyone thinks Chen is unfit for the job—he has brains, nerve, and an unshakable belief that criminals are bad for China—but the fact is, he's in his early 30s, unsuitably young, some say, to be in charge of the Shanghai Police Bureau's Special Case Squad. The whispering climbs a decibel level when Chen gets that most enviable of establishment perks, his own apartment. Thus, on the day a high-profile murder case comes within reach, Chen is all over it, intent on cracking it in order to validate his worth to colleagues, superiors, and, most importantly, to himself. Guan Hongying, the victim, was a National Model Worker, that is to say, a poster girl for impeccable behavior and devotion to the socialist ideal. Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that there were other sides to Guan, that her famous probity was a sometime thing at best, that she was ambitious, even ruthless. Methodically, step by careful step, Chen and his staff assemble the case against the one person who had the means, the opportunity, and the need to do away with Guan. But that person, Chen discovers, just might be above the law. The writing, particularly the dialogue, is a shade awkward at times, but Chen is an irresistible protagonist, likable and determined to make the honorable choices, no matter how dangerous. Qiu's portrait of China in transition, apotentialeye-opener for many of his Western readers, is an equally compelling attraction.

From the Publisher
Winner of the Anthony Award for Best First Novel

Nominee for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel

“A marvelously assured debut . . . Engrossing, immensely readable.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Xiaolong knows that words can save your soul and in his pungent, poignant mystery, he proves it on every page.”
Chicago Tribune

“Stupendous . . . [with a] hard-boiled, intricate plot and subtly developed characters . . . A matchless pearl.”
—Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s “Fresh Air”

Death Of A Red Heroine grabbed my imagination, took me on a slowly, intricately built journey that nevertheless felt sexy and slick, and kept me turning the pages deep into the night . . . A refreshingly brave exploration into political China, woven around a tense thriller and likeable, enigmatic characters.”
—Huffington Post

“A fascinating and thought-provoking read, rich in descriptions of delicious meals, beautiful gardens and impossibly cramped housing conditions. Not to be missed.”
The Guardian

“A tale of murder, deception and politics that has the ring of authenticity.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“An absolutely exquisite book (and I don’t believe I’ve ever before used this descriptor in a review!) . . . Qiu Xiaolong’s attention to culture, politics, loyalty (to persons and to country), poetry, justice (whatever this may be), love, art more generally, law and order and the sacred and intimate relationship between the Chinese people and their food, all blend to form an intellectually stimulating, beautiful, and surprising work of art.”
Deadly Pleasures Magazine

“Riveting and convincing.”
Far Eastern Economic Review

 “Xiaolong, a Chinese poet and literary critic, is adept at threading social commentary of China in the 1990s with his detective's movements through social strata in search of the killer . . . Xiaolong's first mystery may be the most impressive debut of the year.”

“This political mystery offers a peek into the tightly sealed, often crooked world of post-Tiananmen Square China . . . An impressive and welcome respite from the typical crime novel.”
Publishers Weekly

“In his first novel, [Xiaolong] depicts a modern, changeable China, using focused prose, realistic depictions, and a very human protagonist.”
Library Journal

“[Meet] the wonderful and complex Inspector Chen Cao, the ever-impecunious, couplet-quoting poet of the Shanghai Police Bureau. A wonderful, many-faceted gem of a book!”
—William Marshall, The Yellowthread Street Mystery series

“In Death of a Red Heroine China is not only the setting . . . The Party’s attempts to recoup political legitimacy from the real setting for this mystery and cast a dark shadow over every step in its resolution. Raw, naked power is at the core of both the murder and its investigation, but its manifestations are anything but predictable in this splendid first work.”
—Robert E. Hegel, Professor of Chinese and Comparative Literature, Washington University

 “A brilliant debut. . . . I cannot imagine any readers, including fellow whodunit addicts, who would want to miss this fine novel, which makes a strong bid for a place in lasting literature.”
—Mona Van Duyn, U.S. Poet Laureate, 1992–3

“A sheer delight.”
—I Love a Mystery

“Unique in that it combines the stringency and rigour of police work, the inflexibility of Communism and the need for artistic expression. . . . The novel is a fascinating read.”
Mystery Review

“The main character is three-dimensional and practically jumps off the pages. I am anticipating another case with Inspector Chen.”
The Snooper

“Much more than a detective story, it is an elegant, true-to-life portrait of China today.”

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Product Details

Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
Inspector Chen Cao Series, #1
Product dimensions:
5.86(w) x 8.32(h) x 1.55(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The body was found at 4:40 P.M., on May 11, 1990, in Baili Canal, an out-of-the-way canal, about twenty miles to the west of Shanghai.

    Standing beside the body, Gao Ziling, captain of the Vanguard, spat vigorously on the damp ground three times—a half-hearted effort to ward off the evil spirits of the day, a day that had begun with a long-anticipated reunion between two friends who had been separated for more than twenty years.

    It was coincidental that the Vanguard, a patrol boat of the Shanghai River Security Department, should have ventured all the way into Baili around 1:30 P.M. Normally it did not go anywhere close to that area. The unusual trip had been suggested by Liu Guoliang, an old friend whom Gao had not seen for twenty years. They had been high-school buddies. After leaving school in the early sixties, Gao started to work in Shanghai, but Liu had gone to a college in Beijing, and afterward, to a nuclear test center in Qinghai Province. During the Cultural Revolution they had lost touch. Now Liu had a project under review by an American company in Shanghai, and he had taken a day off to meet with Gao. Their reunion after so long a time was a pleasant event, to which each of them had been looking forward.

    It took place by the Waibaidu Bridge, where the Suzhou River and the Huangpu River met with a dividing line visible in the sunlight. The Suzhou, even more heavily polluted than the Huangpu, looked like a black tarpaulin in sharp contrast to the clear blue sky. The river stank despite the pleasant summer breeze. Gaokept apologizing; a better place should have been chosen for the occasion. The Mid-Lake Teahouse in Shanghai Old City, for instance. An afternoon over an exquisite set of teacups and saucers, where they would have so much to talk about, with lambent pipa and sanxun music in the background. However, Gao had been obliged to remain on board the Vanguard all day, no one had wanted to take over his shift.

    Looking at the muddy water, with its burden of rubbish—plastic bottles, empty beer cans, flattened containers, and cigarette boxes—Liu suggested they go somewhere else in the boat to fish. The river had changed beyond the two old friends' recognition, but they themselves had not changed that much. Fishing was a passion they had shared in their high-school days.

    "I've missed the taste of crucian carp in Qinghai," Liu confessed.

    Gao jumped at the suggestion. He could easily explain going downstream as a routine trip. Also, it would display his power as captain. So he suggested Baili, a canal off the Suzhou River, about seventy miles south of the Waibaidu Bridge as a destination. It was yet untouched by Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms, far from any main road, with the nearest village a couple of miles away. But getting there by water was not easy. Once they passed the Oriental Refinery looming above Wusong the passage grew narrower, and at times it was so shallow it was hardly navigable. They had to push away trailing branches, but after an arduous struggle, they finally reached a dark stretch of water obscured by tall weeds and shrubs.

    Fortunately, Baili turned out to be as wonderful as Gao had promised. It was small, but with no shortage of water thanks to the past month's heavy rain. The fish flourished there since it was relatively unpolluted. As soon as they flipped out the lures, they could feel bites. Soon they were busy retrieving their lines. Fish kept jumping out of the water, landing in the boat, jerking and gasping.

    "Look at this one," Liu said, pointing out a fish twitching at his feet. "More than a pound."

    "Great," Gao said. "You're bringing us luck today."

    The next minute, Gao, too, dug the hook out of a half-pound bass with his thumbnail.

    Happily, he recast his line with a practiced flick of his wrist. Before he had reeled it halfway back to the boat, something gave his line another terrific tug. The rod arched, and a huge carp exploded into the sunlight.

    They did not have much time to talk. Time flashed backward as silver scales danced in the golden sun. Twenty minutes—or twenty years. They were back in the good old days. Two high-school students sitting side by side, talking, drinking, and angling, the whole world dangling on their lines.

    "How much does a pound of crucian carp sell for?" Liu asked, holding another one in his hand. "One this size?"

    "Thirty Yuan at least, I'd say."

    "So I've already got more than four pounds. About a hundred Yuan worth, right?" Liu said. "We've been here only an hour, and I've hauled in more than a week's salary."

    "You're kidding!" Gao said, pulling a bluegill off his hook. "A nuclear engineer with your reputation!"

    "No, it's a fact. I should have been a fisherman, angling south of the Yangtze River," Liu said, shaking his head. "In Qinghai we often go for months without a taste of fish."

    Liu had worked for twenty years in a desert area, where the local peasants observed a time-honored tradition of serving a fish carved from wood in celebration of the Spring Festival since the Chinese character for "fish" can also mean "surplus," a lucky sign for the coming year. Its taste might be forgotten, but not the tradition.

    "I cannot believe it," Gao said indignantly. "The great scientist making nuclear bombs earns less than the petty peddlers making tea-leaf eggs. What a shame!"

    "It's the market economy," Liu said. "The country is changing in the right direction. And the people have a better life."

    "But that's unfair, I mean, for you."

    "Well, I don't have too much to complain of nowadays. Can you guess why I did not write to you during the Cultural Revolution?"

    "No. Why?"

    "I was criticized as a bourgeois intellectual and locked up in a cell for a year. After I was released, I was still considered `politically black,' so I did not want to incriminate you."

    "I'm so sorry to hear that," Gao said, "but you should have let me know. My letters were returned. I should have guessed."

    "It's all over," Liu said, "and here we are, together, fishing for our lost years."

    "Tell you what," Gao said, eager to change the subject, "we've got enough to make an excellent soup."

    "A wonderful soup—Wow, another!" Liu was reeling in a thrashing perch—well over a foot long.

    "My old wife is no intellectual, but she's pretty good at making fish soup. Add a few slices of Jinhua bacon, throw in a pinch of black pepper and a handful of green onion. Oh, what a soup."

    "I'm looking forward to meeting her."

    "You're no stranger to her. I've shown your picture to her frequently."

    "Yes, but it's twenty years old," Liu said. "How can she recognize me from a high-school picture? Remember He Zhizhang's famous line? `My dialect is not changed, but my hair has turned gray.'"

    "Mine, too," Gao said.

    They were ready to go back now.

    Gao returned to the wheel. But the engine shuddered with a grinding sound. He tried full throttle. The exhaust at the rear spurted black fumes, but the boat did not move an inch. Scratching his head, Captain Gao turned to his friend with an apologetic gesture. He was unable to understand the problem. The canal was small but not shallow. The propeller, protected by the rudder, could not have scraped bottom. Something might have caught in it—a torn fishing net or a loose cable. The former was rather unlikely. The canal was too narrow for fishermen to cast nets there. But if the latter was the cause of the trouble, it would be hard to disentangle it to free the propeller.

    He turned off the engine and jumped onto the shore. He still failed to see anything amiss, so he started feeling about in the muddy water with a long bamboo stick which he had bought for his wife to use as a clothesline on their balcony. After a few minutes, he touched something under the boat.

    It felt like a soft object, rather large, heavy.

    Taking off his shirt and pants, he stepped down into the water. He got hold of it in no time. It took him several minutes, however, to tug it through the water, and up onto the shore.

    It was a huge black plastic bag.

    There was a string tied around the neck of the bag. Untying it cautiously, he leaned down to look within.

    "Holy—hell!" he cursed.


    "Look at this. Hair!"

    Leaning over, Liu also gasped.

    It was the hair of a dead, naked woman.

    With Liu's help, Gao took the body out of the bag and laid it on its back on the ground.

    She could not have been in the water too long. Her face, though slightly swollen, was recognizably young and good looking. A wisp of green rush was woven into her coil of black hair. Her body was ghastly white, with slack breasts and heavy thighs. Her pubic hair was black and wet.

    Gao hurried back into the boat, took out a worn blanket, and threw it over her. That was all he could think of doing for the moment. He then broke the bamboo pole in two. It was a pity, but it would bring bad luck now. He could not bear the thought of his wife hanging their clothes over it, day in, day out.

    "What shall we do?" Liu said.

    "There's nothing we can do. Don't touch anything. Leave the body alone until the police come."

    Gao took out his cellular phone. He hesitated before dialing the number of the Shanghai Police Bureau. He would have to write a report. It would have to describe the way he had found the body, but first of all, he would have to account for being there, at that time of day, with Liu on board. While supposedly working his shift, he was having a good time with his friend, fishing and drinking. But he would have to tell the truth. He had no choice, he concluded, dialing.

    "Detective Yu Guangming, special case squad," a voice answered.

    "I am Captain Gao Ziling, of the Vanguard, Shanghai River Security Department. I am reporting a homicide. A body was discovered in Baili Canal. A young female body."

    "Where is Baili Canal?"

    "West of Qingpu. Past Shanghai Number Two Paper Mill. About seven or eight miles from it."

    "Hold on," Detective Yu said. "Let me see who is available."

    Captain Gao grew nervous as the silence at the other end of the line was prolonged.

    "Another murder case was reported after four thirty," Detective Yu finally said. "Everybody is out of the office now. Even Chief Inspector Chen. But I'm on my way. You know enough not to mess things up, I assume. Wait there for me."

    Gao glanced at his watch. It would take at least two hours for the detective to reach them. Not to mention the time he would have to spend with him after that. Both Liu and he would be required as witnesses, then probably would have to go to the police station to make their statements as well.

    The weather was quite pleasant, the temperature mild, the white clouds moving idly across the sky. He saw a dark toad jumping into a crevice among the rocks, the gray spot contrasting with the bone-white rocks. A toad, too, could be an evil omen. He spat on the ground again. He had already forgotten how many times this made.

    Even if they could manage to get back home for dinner, the fish would have been long dead. A huge difference for the soup.

    "I'm so sorry," Gao apologized. I should have chosen another place."

    "As our ancient sage says, `Eight or nine out of ten times, things will go wrong in this world of ours'," Liu replied with renewed equanimity. "It's nobody's fault."

    As he spat again, Gao observed the dead woman's feet sticking out of the blanket. White, shapely feet, with arched soles, well-formed toes, scarlet-painted nails.

    And then he saw the glassy eyes of a dead carp afloat on the surface of the bucket. For a second, he felt as if the fish were staring at him, unblinking; its belly appeared ghastly white, swollen.

    "We won't forget the day of our reunion," Liu remarked.

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