The Case of the Shanghai Shamus

A shy St. Louis poet pens subversive detective stories set in his communist homeland.

His early efforts were hardly polished. "It was more like a sampler: a little bit of this, and a little bit of that," Qiu says. "I had to have something to hold it together, so I looked at mystery more as a framework."


The sudden change in literary modes caught his friends and colleagues off guard. "We didn't know he was writing that novel until he told us that the manuscript was accepted," says Leslie Cheng, a friend who met Qiu in a writers' group.

photoillustration by sarah norwood, portrait by je
Poet Qiu Xiaolong has found success in St. Louis and beyond as a mystery novelist.
Jennifer Silverberg
Poet Qiu Xiaolong has found success in St. Louis and beyond as a mystery novelist.

That novel, which went on to become Death of a Red Heroine, has now been translated into sixteen languages and made Qiu an instant celebrity in the world of mystery authors. Critics also took note of Qiu's genre-bending fiction. This year England's Guardian newspaper placed the novel atop its top ten list of Asian crime fiction. Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Melanie Kirkpatrick called the book "an intriguing detective yarn as well as a commentary on how the Communist Party remains the controlling force in most aspects of ordinary life in China," adding, "Qiu can write so accurately about life in the new China because he was born and grew up there; he can write so candidly because he now lives in the U.S."

Nor has Qiu slowed his pace. Over the past seven years, he has churned out four more Inspector Chen novels; a fifth, Red Mandarin Dress, is slated for release in November. To date, the Inspector Chen series has sold more than 700,000 copies. This breakout success allowed Qiu to quit teaching at Washington University a few years ago to concentrate full-time on his writing. He's particularly loved in Europe, where his new novel has already been published in advance of the U.S. edition. Amazingly, Qiu has never had a literary agent and manages all of his publishing contracts alone.

He also continues to pursue his poetry. In 2003 Qiu published a collection called Lines Around China. That same year he translated and edited Treasury of Chinese Love Poems, a bilingual collection.

Even more telling are the literary proclivities of Inspector Chen, one of the only gumshoes in the history of the genre to have published a book of poetry. In fact, Chen is something closer to a detective-poet in nature. He quotes verse — often at length — and shares with his creator an adoration of the work of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

But that, Qiu insists, is about the extent of their similarities. The author and his protagonist have made very different choices in their lives. "I never was a cop. I never was a party member. He's part of the system, even though he does not identify with the party," Qiu says. "In a way I imagine through Chen what I might have done had I stayed in China. Idealistically, I would like him to do much more, more courageously, more decisively, though I understand that he has to work within the system. He of course has his excuses, and so do I — but they are just excuses."

His novels evoke the same ambivalent response. "[Qiu] is kind of subversive. His novels are set in China, and there's no such thing as justice in the end, because the legal system is so flawed in China," his friend Leslie Cheng observes. "You always have mixed feelings at the end of his novels. The means he uses to solve his case in the first novel is through his political connections; it's pretty corrupt. So you cannot call that triumph. There's always this melancholy: He solved the case, but what's the real significance?"

Hegel, the man who helped Qiu first come to St. Louis, says inspector Chen's political entanglements are what makes Qiu's crime fiction quintessentially Chinese: "Chinese literature has always been engaged with major political questions. So when Qiu Xiaolong writes about corruption, he's writing as a Chinese writer: Even his protagonist is hooked into it, and he can't really get out. Inspector Chen has moral scruples, but the question is how much can he compromise his integrity and still get by? At what point does he have to say no, and at what risk?"

Most Western writers never have to think in such absolutist terms. "If one wanted to serve in any administration in the U.S., you'd have to make certain compromises or get out of it," Hegel observes. "But in China there's no place to get out to; there never really has been. The choice has always been you either opt out of the system entirely, or you deal with it."

The tension between Chen's need to toe the party line and his poetic sensibilities makes for some jarring passages. In his third book, A Loyal Character Dancer, the detective confers with a party official about his investigation:

"There are not many young officers like you nowadays," Huang concluded emphatically. "The Party counts on you, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen."

"I understand. Whatever the Party wants me to do, I will do, even if I have to go through mountains of knives and seas of fire." He thought of two Tang dynasty lines. Beholden to your making a general of me on the stage of gold,/flourishing the Jade Dragon sword, I'll fight for you to the end. The old minister had not only recommended him for the job, but also called him at home, personally, to discuss the case. "I won't let you down, Minister Huang."

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