Qiu Xiaolong Death of a Red Heroine (2000)

08 Oct

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingQiu Xiaolong (Tchyoo Shyowloong, or near enough) is “a Shanghai native and English language author currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. He has published several mystery novels, including Death of a Red Heroine and A Loyal Character Dancer, both featuring Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a poet (and poetry-quoting) cop with integrity.” There is now a third novel, When Red is Black. He attended the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in September 2006. I happened upon his first novel in a remainder shop and am now very glad I did. See this interview.

Books That Matter says: “I very much liked it and found that the meeting between Communist Party politics and economic reform added an effective layer to what could otherwise have been just another police procedural novel. The fact that Detective Chief Inspector Chen (policeman by day, imagist poet by night) has to weigh party politics into every element of his work creates a fascinating tension in the narrative. I’d recommend the book to anyone who enjoys writers like Ian Rankin strong on personal back story, human relationships and evocative place settings. A very fresh-feeling book.” I totally agree.

In Persimmon, a magazine of Asian culture, Andrea Kempf wrote:

China has enjoyed a long tradition of crime fiction, dating back to at least the Tang dynasty, when tales of jurists who often solved their mysteries with the aid of ghosts rather than detection or common sense were popular… The twentieth-century detective novels set in China available to Western readers have been written either by visitors to the country or by Western authors inventing an imaginary China. Finally, with Death of a Red Heroine, English-language readers have a genuine Chinese novel of detection, written by Shanghai-born Qui [sic] Xiaolong, who came to the United States on a Ford Foundation fellowship in 1988 and stayed on after the pro-democracy debacle in Tiananmen Square.

Qui’s protagonist, Chief Inspector Chen Cao, is-like the author-a native of Shanghai, an expert on T. S. Eliot, and a published poet; and from its opening pages, this novel has an authenticity no tourist can create. Set in Shanghai in the 1990s, Death of a Red Heroine is replete with the smells, the sights, and the sounds of this great Chinese city: a former brothel quarter has been converted to work-unit dormitories where none of the residents will take responsibility for cleaning the bathrooms; on the overcrowded buses, people’s tempers are short; little neighborhood restaurants serve delicious fried buns; and as they practice tai chi along the city’s elegant Bund, local residents ignore the crowds of tourists and financiers passing by…

It really is “Qiu”, by the way, so I assume that is just an uncorrected typo, sad in such a good magazine as Persimmon. Mind you, people really do get confused by Pinyin transliteration, but I now find it quite easy, and I would never call a “Qiu” kew, for example, though it happens; The Mine used to annoy me sometimes on this one, as it was amazing in a place where maybe 20-25% of the students had Pinyin names so many teachers still consistently mangled them: kwing for Qing, for example, instead of “Ching”, or zoo for Xu, instead of “Shoo”. The kids generally just ignored the mistakes and politely answered to whatever the teacher said. The detective in these novels is, by the way, Chen Tsow, not “cow”! And his surname (family name) is Chen, as the author’s is Qiu. Got it? And my Mandarin pseudonym here is Wu Ninglun: “Wu” being a very rough approximation to my surname, and “Ninglun” to my first name: it also means “peaceful discussion”. See Get your own Chinese name.

Death of a Red Heroine resonates with me, because this is M’s city, and much of the novel is in the precise time and place when M knew Shanghai best; it also happens that one of M’s closest friends was a policeman in Shanghai, and thereby hangs an interesting tale indeed. Suffice to say I will probably pass the book on to M when I have finished it; I am sure he will recognise something on almost every page. M’s sister also happens to be a journalist/literary critic, as is one of the principal female characters in the novel.

If you want an authentic feel for what it is like living in China, and how the locals negotiate the politics and the system, and you want something that goes way beyond stereotypes, then read this book.

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Posted by on October 8, 2006 in M, Marcel, Multiculturalism and diversity, Reading



5 responses to “Qiu Xiaolong Death of a Red Heroine (2000)

  1. marcelproust

    October 8, 2006 at 10:11 pm

    Not that you have a tv now, but there is some dubious pinyin realisation in the voice over to the promo to the “Australian Story” tomorrow night, Li Cunxin. My other recurring favourite is the Mastercard ad which purports to reconstruct the costs of travelling independently to Guilin – the first syllable taking its cue from “guide” or “guile.” PS: I hope if once I eventually return “Eastern Slope” you will be able to lend me this book (after M, as is proper and, on my track record with Eastern Slope, fitting). Incidentally, I notice that “Eastern Slope” (the poet, Su Dongpo not the place) gets a guernsey in the interview with Qiu Xiaolong which you link to.

  2. Peter

    October 15, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    I’m always happy to read discussions of that wonderful novel Death of a Red Heroine. Among other things, it has what is probably my favorite opening chapter of any crime novel ever.

    I’ve discussed the novel twice on my blog about international crime fiction, Detectives Beyond Borders (URLs for the posts immediately below). From a quick glance at your blog, you might be interested in my blog’s discussions of Janwillem van de Wetering and Australian crime fiction as well. I invite you to visit!


    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home”

  3. ninglun

    October 16, 2006 at 10:32 am

    Thanks, Peter, and I am impressed by your statement about the opening of Death of a Red Heroine, coming as it does from someone more widely-read in the genre than I am. Thanks too for the links.

  4. Peter

    October 16, 2006 at 11:47 am

    One of the standard injunctions to writers of detective novels is to get right into the action. Death of a Red Heroine violates that, backing slowly into the story, and the opening works beautifully. It’s like an overture.

    Incidentally, Qiu’s second novel falls well short of his first, but his third bounces back somewhat. I’ve never been to Shanghai, but I did spend a brief period in Guilin around the time Qiu’s book is set. It was enough to make the setting of Death of a Red Heroine ring true.

    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home”

  5. Peter

    October 19, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    I see that Qiu Xiaolong has a fourth novel featuring Inspector Chen Cao to be published next month.


    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder is More Fun Away From Home”

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