Chinese Puzzle

St. Louis author Qiu Xiaolong's new book is as much an examination of social and political upheaval in Chinese society as it is a mystery novel

Chief Inspector Chen Cao doesn't fit the mold of the typical gumshoe. For example, when he's introduced by Chinese emigré and St. Louis author Qiu Xiaolong in his first novel, Death of a Red Heroine, Chen is preparing a housewarming party in his new government-sanctioned apartment:

"By ten to six he had finished setting the table. He rubbed his hands, quite pleased with the results of his efforts. For the main dishes, there were chunks of pork stomach on a bed of green napa, thin slices of smoked carp spread on fragile leaves of jicai, and steamed peeled shrimp with tomato sauce. There was also a platter of eels with scallions and ginger, which he had ordered from a restaurant. He had opened a can of Meiling steamed pork, and added some green vegetables to it to make another dish. On the side, he placed a small dish of sliced tomatoes, and another of cucumbers. When the guests arrived, a soup would be made from the juice of the canned pork and canned pickle.

"He was selecting a pot in which to warm the Shaoxing wine when the doorbell rang."

"In the past, before the communists, people believed in Confucius. Then afterward, they believed in Mao. After Cultural Revolution, now what?" -- Qiu Xiaolong, author of Death of a Red Heroine
Jennifer Silverberg
"In the past, before the communists, people believed in Confucius. Then afterward, they believed in Mao. After Cultural Revolution, now what?" -- Qiu Xiaolong, author of Death of a Red Heroine

Few, if any, fictional detectives are known for their devotion to the kitchen gods. Imagine Philip Marlowe tying on an apron and setting up a spread like that. V.I. Warshawski sure as hell doesn't have time for domestic chores. If any scholar were to take on the subject of "Food and the Modern Detective," the classic image would be that of Steve McQueen in Bullitt, shopping in the supermarket, selecting a different TV dinner for each night of the week.

And with big Steve in mind, don't expect any chase scenes -- for the most part, the unglamorous Chen either takes the bus or walks. He walks to help himself contemplate the complex case in which he finds himself enmeshed, which is accompanied by discomforting political pressures, but more often than not, as he walks, what comes to mind are a few apt lines from Chinese poetry. After he and Detective Yu Guangming discuss a lead in the case -- over a repast of smoked fish head, squid and beer (nothing seems to distract Chen from his appetite, and in Qiu's narrative design, food always takes precedent over plot) -- Chen is reminded of a Tang-dynasty poem: "This door, this day/-- Last year, your blushing face,/And the blushing faces/Of the peach blossoms reflecting/ Yours. This door, this day -- this year, where are you,/You, in the peach blossoms?/The peach blossoms still/here, giggling/At the spring breeze."

Poetry of the West intrudes on Chen's detective musings as well -- "Dover Beach" appears at one point, with an allusion to Derrida, no less -- which is another central, and atypical, quirk of this sleuth's. Chen is a translator of T.S. Eliot, along with other modernist poets, and is as renowned for his own poetry in Chinese literary circles as he is for his reputation as a good cop in an unjust system.

Chen is polite, never threatens with muscle or gets in anyone's face. When he's told he needs to supply a proper request to trace the phone number of a prime suspect, he dutifully supplies it. No doors are busted down or heads busted in. No dames used and tossed away like yesterday's party slogan. Chen encounters a prostitute during his investigation and treats her with a gallantry that would have Mickey Spillane turning in his grave. Even some of Chen's associates find him somewhat archaic. A repeated refrain he hears is "This is the '90s."

Author Qiu is as unpretentious as his literary invention, with whom he shares numerous character traits. Qiu is an accomplished poet and, like Chen, was a member of the prestigious Chinese Writers Association in his native Shanghai, where Red Heroine is set. He has translated Eliot, Yeats and other modernist poets into Chinese. And like Chen, he feels himself an outsider in the global economic boom that is radically transforming the People's Republic and his adopted home. "In China, some of my friends who were writers, too, they are surprised that I'm still writing," says Qiu. "They became businessmen. They make money. They go to expensive restaurants. They're involved in fashion. I'm in the United States, and I'm still writing.

"You realize you have to make a living, but you don't want to give up writing. But others say writing is just a joke."

Food's important, too. Qiu chooses a Chinese restaurant on Olive Boulevard to talk about his book. Along with the individual lunch specials, he orders a large fried flounder to share. When it arrives, he spoons large portions onto his guest's plate. "I must save face," he laughs.

Poet Qiu chose the novel form to explore the enormous social and political changes he has witnessed in his homeland since he began returning there on a regular basis in 1995. "One of the reasons I started writing this book was because this type of dramatic change -- you can call it 'best of times, worst of times' -- I found poetry is a good vehicle for my own feelings, but if you want to describe this kind of dramatic social change, maybe the novel is the best vehicle in that sense."

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