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Qiu Xiaolong's Anthony Award-winning debut introduces Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police.
A young “national model worker,” renowned for her adherence to the principles of the Communist Party, turns up dead in a Shanghai canal. As Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Special Cases Bureau struggles to trace the hidden threads of her past, he finds himself challenging the very political forces that have guided his life since birth. Chen must tiptoe around his superiors if he wants to get to the bottom of this crime, and risk his career—perhaps even his life—to see justice done.
About the Author
Qiu Xiaolong has been published in more than twenty languages, and more than one million copies of his mysteries, poetry, and literary criticism are in print around the world. He is the author of eight other Inspector Chen Cao mysteries, including A Loyal Character Dancer and When Red Is Black. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter.
Read an Excerpt
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 timesa 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 rubbishplastic bottles, empty beer cans, flattened containers, and cigarette boxesLiu 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 minutesor 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?"
"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 soupWow, another!" Liu was reeling in a thrashing perchwell 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 ita 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.
"Holyhell!" 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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book is different than most books I have read before! The story is a combination of mystery and politics with the majority of it in politics. Unlike other books, this story weaves a fascinating story of how Communist Chinese politics deeply affects the lives of their detectives and the outcome of their investigations. If you are looking for a book with mystery from front to back, this is not the story. If you want to learn a little while you read (my motive!), this is a great book.
In my opinion, there are two main types of mysteries out there today. When I say the word “murder mystery”, most people's minds jump to the traditional “whodunnit”, in which the protagonist(s) attempt to discover who the killer is/are. In the other, popularized by the television series “Columbo”, the “howdunnit” makes little to no secret over who the villain is – the point of the novel is to watch as our protagonist puts the pieces together and attempts to prove that the antagonist is guilty despite their efforts to cover up their crime. In “Death of a Red Heroine”, author Qiu Xiaolong attempts to marry the two and put his own spin on it. The young woman found murdered outside of Shanghai turns out to be a Model Worker, someone who the Party has held up as someone whom the Chinese population should use as an example in their own lives. Inspector Chen faces his first big case in his new job. He has to figure out who the victim is – and then who killed her, and why. Meanwhile, two large questions hang overhead – is the person he has targeted as his prime suspect actually guilty (“whodunnit”) and will the Communist Party allow him to arrest his prime suspect if it turns out to be the correct action, given his position and status? (Add some angst in his personal life to keep him on his toes.) Having grown up in a capitalistic society, governed in accordance with those of a Republic and a Democracy, I was certainly interested in (in my opinion) the main character of this novel – The Communist Party of the People's Republic of China. EVERY decision, every action is either predicated on “What is in the best interests of the Party?” or “How will the Party react to this action?” (Sometimes augmented with “... if they find out.”) It's not an attitude I am used to, nor do I believe I could tolerate. However, it added a unique and interesting aspect to what would have been a decent, but unassuming novel. In my opinion, it's worth a try. Enjoy it. And I'll be looking forward to the second book in the series. RATING: 4 stars.
I really enjoyed this book. The writing style is very different from American mysteries, and I enjoyed that. Chief Inspector Chen is investigating the murder of a political party member and it's interesting to see the pull between politics and doing what Chen believes is right. Chen is a character that grew on me. From the start he's very poetic, and the way he views the world around him is poetic too. Normally I'm not big on poetry, but there were a lot of nice quotes in this book, and Chen had a way of making them fit his life. The pace of the book was very relaxed, not a usual fast paced mystery. I liked that. There was a concentration on details and relationships and it was interesting to read about the changes that were affecting China in the 1990s. Like others have said, it wasn't really about finding out who the killer was, but the journey that Inspector Chen took, and the discoveries he made along the way, as well as his perserverance.
'90s in Shanghai. I like the main character, a true comrade gentleman, honest and hard working. Seems to be very predictable, but still the setting and the characters made it an entertaining read. I look forward reading the next in the series.
If you like would like to learn about modern day Shanghai; get glimpses of the Cultural Revolution in an interesting, history brought alive kind of way; enjoy detective series; and want to read about a intelligent, moral, detective who always tries to do right while balancing the need to be a filial son to his mother and the "good or best interests of the party," these are a great series. Start with this one, the first, and keep reading. I did find this book a little long (it was a lot of pages), but it provided an interesting glimpse of a "model worker" a beautiful young lady who seems to have it all - respect, admiration, fame but is murdered and it is up to Detective Chen to solve the case. I actually started with one of the latest Detective Chen books, "The Mao Case" that I found in the New release section of the library. I enjoyed it so much, that I started with this book, so I could read the entire series. These books are great for learning more about the Chinese culture, history, poetry, and are just great escape books. Inspector Chen is the kind of person who you would want as a friend. I visited Shanghai and China three years ago, so it great reading more about it and remembering some of the sights.
Life in the nineties' Shanghai is revealed through the eyes of a poetic minded detective. The prose flows effortlessly as it pulls us into the story, giving non-Chinese a better understanding of what it's like to live and work in contemporary China.
I am not normally a fan of mysteries as a category of fiction but my wife makes up for my lack of interest with stacks of mysteries around the house. This first book by Qiu Xiolong struck my interest with its setting in Shanghai, China in early 1990 a year after Teanammen Square. The book does not disappoint; it is a splendid mix of historical fiction, political and social observation, with a newly appointed Chief Inspector Chen who is a wonderfully fully developed character (as are all the characters in the book). You¿re not going to read this because of the case, a rather traditional murder. Although the victim, the red heroine of the title, is compelling because she was a ¿model worker¿ member of the ¿Party¿ and thus a part of the elite. All this Xiaolong points out comes with a price. The fun begins as The Party, via Chen¿s superiors are all over him and his partner Yu attempting to direct, control, delay and halt the investigation to protect the Party, and thus the country. How this all plays out in the plot are the twists and turns one expects from a good mystery. The book¿s structure is basically just a police procedural. However, this outstanding book is much more as it delivers the reader into the world of 1990 Shanghai with details in character and environment in a strange landscape of a political and economic system in a paranoid transition. The basic plot point is the decline of privileges of the old guard and their sense of entitlement vs. capitalism that Chen and his generation realize requires fairness and justice if it is to work. My only negative comments are that the actual murder case and motive is not that creative although it works and services the story. And, don¿t your just hate it when a compelling character and love interest, in this case a local reporter named Wang, just keeps calling Chen and...¿. (Well I won¿t spoil it for you except to say in my opinion Xialong missed the boat on the Wang/Chen relationship). I can not convey how much I both enjoyed this book and how I am sure you will too.
I am an English mystery junkie who took a fascinating and unforgettable trip down the Yangtse River several years ago. Could I ask for anything more than this marvelous novel? It reads a bit slowly at first, but that is also reminiscent of English pacing, and it turns out to be well worth the effort. I have just ordered his second!
A book that I could not put down. It was beautifully written and although not a poetry lover, I truly enjoyed the short poems inserted into the story line. I hope Xiaolong Qiu continues to fascinate us with more Inspector Chen mysteries.
This novel merits attention not only because it is excellent, but also because it is groundbreaking. As far as I know, it is the first English-language police procedural set in contemporary China written by a Chinese author. Of course, I would love to be proven wrong on this since it would mean that there was other material out there to read. To my knowledge, most previous mysteries and thrillers set in China have been by Western authors. The most famous are probably van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries. Unfortunately, more recently we have suffered from inane thrillers in which a Western protagonist becomes entangled in some sort of incomprehensible and fundamentally absurd political intrigue, confronts a series of diabolical but paper-thin villains, and receives assistance from some sort of beautiful and exotic love interest. Finally, with Red Heroine, we have a detective novel written by an insider with Chinese protagonists, Chinese villains, and only incidental roles for Westerners. I hope very much this is the beginning of a trend. Now for my discussion of the novel itself. It worked well on three levels. First of all, it was the sort of slow-paced, atmospheric police procedural that I like the most. In many ways, it reminds me de Wetering's Grijpstra and de Gier series, Mankell's Kurt Wallander novels, or Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck novels. It uses a criminal case and the accompanying investigation as a lens through which to view contemporary society. The pace is leisurely, it provides a very strong sense of place, and has nicely realized, complex, and mostly authentic characters. So if you like reading about Grijpstra and de Gier, Wallender, or Beck, you will like this book. Second, I thought it was an excellent and very authentic portrait of life in urban China in the 1990s. The author takes advantage of the possibilities offered by the narrative form of the procedural to introduce characters from many different walks of life and show how they have been affected by the turbulence of previous decades and by the uncertainty created by the rapid economic and political change of the 1990s. Generational conflicts, economic and social clevages, and political change all play a role. The portrait of life is so complete that I am weighing the possibility of assigning the novel when I teach my class on Chinese society next year. The book's focus on the details of everyday life sets it apart from much of the other English-language fiction about China that seems to focus so much on the exotic. Third, I really appreciated the quality of the prose. Reflecting perhaps the author's background in literature, the imagery was often very evocative. I have spent a fair amount of time in China, and the author's descriptions of people's homes, restaurants, typical street scenes, and so forth all really resonated. The novel is not perfect, reflecting perhaps the fact that it is the author's first published detective novel. I would like to have seen more of the intricate details of police work that help 'authenticate' procedurals. While interviewing and the gathering of forensic evidence was handled adequately, there were one or two places where the description fell flat. For example, on a couple of occasions when a character needs to go somewhere without being followed, the author simply states that the character 'made sure he wans't being followed.' This is a marked difference from, for example, Wahloo and Sjowall's 'The Man Who Went Up in Smoke' where we get ample details of Martin Beck's attempts to evade surveillance while in Budapest. In this particular case, I was completely mystified as to how anyone in China who knew they the subject of special attention from the government could 'make sure they weren't being followed.' Another very minor quibble I had was that the romanization of some of the names seemed problematic. A historical character named Liu Xiahui (the Liu Xiahui of 'Zuo huai bu luan'
Death of a Red Heroine is a magnificent work: both a well-written story and a social commentary on 1990s Shanghai. The prose is poetic. ¿A click. He heard her putting down the phone. And the empty silence. She was thousands of miles away. So many years had passed since he talked to the daughter in his heart.¿ (p. 250) The characters are intricate. My favorite is Yu Guangming, an honorable, hard-working ¿regular guy.¿ The main character, Chief Inspector Chen, has his faults. Half-way into the book, I was still battling whether or not I liked him. The murder investigation is maze-like, slowly unfolding the life and death of Guan Hongying. I read Death of a Red Heroine and found myself a better citizen of the world because it had taught me. Qiu offers a keyhole through which to observe modern Chinese life.