Death of a Red Heroine is Qiu Xiaolong’s first novel featuring Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police and it won the author the Anthony Award for the Best First Crime Novel. As with Red Mandarin Dress, it is a carefully constructed piece of detective fiction and Chen, both a policeman and poet, is a thoroughly likeable, uncorruptable and highly cultured hero. Nevertheless, as much as I enjoyed the book, it failed to grab me in the way that I want and expect crime fiction to do so – for me this wasn’t a page-turner, as such.
And yet I’m not sure whether that is offered as a criticism or not. The political background of China at the beginning of the 1990s and the geographical and cultural background of Shanghai itself looms large in the book. The machinations of the political elite in a one-party state provide Chen with all sorts of obstacles that he must negotiate as he sets out to solve the murder of a former Model Worker, but Chen, who acts as our moral compass, is also a Party member and, if anything, Qiu shows us a powerful elite that is no different from any political establishment – full of the selfish, the selfless, the greedy, the charitable, the corrupted, the honest, the good and the bad. An uncharitable voice might blame the political and cultural detail that Qiu gives us as the reason why the narrative might be a little slow-moving for the genre, but in fact it was this level of detail that I loved so much about the book. Qiu writes well, no doubt, (the bitter sweet ending is particularly well done) and the fact that books like this can find a readership in the Western popular fiction market is a good thing. In future, though, I’ll note expect to race through the next Inspector Chen book, as I might do the next Rebus. It will take a little more time.