Fiction - hardcover; Sceptre; 304 pages; 2009.
The Mao Case by Qui Xiaolong is the sixth and latest book in the Inspector Chen series, which is set in modern day China. But the author, who writes in English, actually lives in the US.
I've not read the previous five novels, but I did not find this a hindrance to what proved to be an enjoyable if somewhat unconventional detective story.
Chief Inspector Chen Cao is not your average run-of-the-mill police officer. He is young, idealistic and takes pride in his work. He loves literature and poetry and does a nice sideline in translation. But his personal life is complicated: his girlfriend, Ling, lives hundreds of miles away in Beijing and their relationship is a tumultuous one. In fact, in the opening chapter of The Mao Case Chen is informed by telephone that Ling has dumped him and married a man more appropriate to her social standing (she's known as a HCC — a high cadre's child — because her father is a top-ranking Party official).
But this is merely a sub-plot. The main story involves Chen going undercover to investigate a rather delicate matter involving Chairman Mao. He must take a softly softly approach, not least because "any slander against Mao, the founder of the Chinese Communist Party, will affect the legitimacy of the Party".
The Party believe that Mao may have given some unspecified material to Shang Yunguan, a 1950s movie star he is said to have had an affair with. The Party want the material back, even though they don't know what it is and whether it even exists. It's not something that can be discussed openly, because that would confirm the rumours about Mao's illicit private life, something which must be avoided at all costs.
A party official, Minister Huang, enlists Chen to undertake this highly secret investigation after Internal Security fail to turn anything up.
"She [Shang] could have taken — or been given — something from him. There were many opportunities."
"Something from Mao?" Chen was instantly alert, though hardly able to smother the sarcasm is his voice. "What could that possibly be?"
"We don't know."
The minister believes the material may have been passed to Shang's daughter, Qian — who died in an accident at the end of the Cultural Revolution — which was then inherited by her granddaughter Jiao. The Party is suspicious of Jiao, because she quit her job a year ago and moved into a luxurious apartment. Since then she has frequently been seen at parties — attended by Westerners — that are being hosted by a mysterious elderly art teacher and 1930s expert called Mr Xie, "who bears a deep grudge against Mao".
As part of the investigation, which swings between Shanghai and Beijing, Chen reinvents himself as a businessman and writer researching Shanghai's 1930s glory days in order to infiltrate Mr Xie's glamorous parties. Along the way he meets strange businessmen, Triads, beautiful women, Chairman Mao himself and all sorts of writerly types.
The plot is occasionally confusing — and preposterous. But Xiaolong's descriptions of China — where the cities of Beijing and Shanghai are being seemingly transformed overnight and where the gap between rich and poor is ever widening — more than makes up for these minor flaws. As do the descriptions of food, particularly Chen's visit to the Fangshan Restaurant, which specialises in imperial cuisine. Here, he dines on genuine Beijing duck and experiences...
the celebrated five ways of eating a duck: crisp duck skin slices wrapped in pancake, duck meat slices fried with green garlic, duck feet immersed in wine, duck gizzard stir-fried with green vegetables, and duck soup.
Mind you, the constant references to Chinese poetry, literature and sayings, which give the narrative a peculiar charm, begin to feel tiresome and heavy-handed by the half-way point. We know the book is set in China; we don't need to be constantly reminded of it in such an obivous way.
That said, the narrative is well paced and builds plenty of momentum, culminating in a suitably heart-hammering and dramatic, if somewhat ambiguous, ending. It's safe to say this was my first Inspector Chen novel and it's unlikely to be my last.
The other novels in the series are: Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006) and Red Mandarin Dress (2007). The seventh novel, Don't Cry Tai Lake, is due for publication in September 2012.