"A conventional murder mystery made truly exceptional thanks to the charismatic and refreshingly unconventional protagonists."– Kirkus Reviews
An emotionally resonant coming-of-age story set during China’s Cultural Revolution.
When Li Ling receives a letter notifying him of his former lover’s death, his wife notices his distress and inquires about it; virtually the entire story is contained within his flashback narrative. He tells of being captivated by Zhang Lily from the moment he met her as a young schoolboy recently returned to Shanghai from Hong Kong. The two quickly became inseparable, eventually including Big Head, another young boy, in their childhood adventures. But their lives were turned upside down by the communist rise to power. Suddenly, Zhang Lily’s father, a professor, and Li Ling’s father, a surgeon, were stripped of professional esteem; schoolchildren were forced to labor in factories and fields; suspected dissidents were subjected to forceful re-education and public censure. Torn apart by the demands of an oppressive state, the lovers promised to hold each other in their hearts forever. Years of drudgery passed before college admissions were reinstated on a large scale, at which point the couple coincidentally found themselves enrolled at the same institution. However, the reunion, while joyful, proved to be not quite what Li Ling expected. Chen (The Mystery of Revenge, 2013 ) offers a somewhat meandering story, but the sedate pacing allows for a deeper exploration of the effects of the Cultural Revolution on individual lives. Dialogue is generally natural and authentic, though some sections are unrealistically didactic (e.g., a stilted discussion of the importance of free elections). The plotting is similarly uneven, a mix of engaging plot twists with those that lack credibility, as with an accused rapist’s initial reluctance to defend himself due to his worrying about his accuser’s potential punishment. Repeated references to the forget-me-not Lily gave Li Ling can be a bit heavy-handed, though the motif itself is endearing. Minor editing errors (e.g., “we were just prawns in the manipulative hands of the state”) are pervasive but don’t detract significantly. The flashback device is necessary for a surprise conclusion that, though only mildly surprising, is nonetheless satisfying.
An inconsistent but appealing novel about life and love within the strictures of a repressive regime.
In Chen’s (The Mystery of Revenge, 2013, etc.) thriller, a Boston college student and an associate professor travel to Beijing to prove that their friend’s suspicious death was premeditated murder.
Ann Lee and Dr. Fang Chen don’t agree with the police theory that Shao Mei’s death was a robbery gone wrong. Her son, John, found the apartment ransacked, but that doesn’t explain an empty bottle of Moutai—a notably expensive Chinese liquor that Shao Mei couldn’t possibly afford—found at the crime scene. Ann and Fang Chen suspect poisoning—their friend had bled from her nose and mouth—but can’t come up with a motive; Shao Mei had few friends in the United States and was better known back when she was a professor at Beijing University. Clues, including a poison that may have been used, seem to point Ann and Fang Chen to Beijing, where the duo may have hit pay dirt when they learn of an out-of-print book that connects Shao Mei to, unfortunately, a second murder. And when Ann is nearly run down by a car in Beijing, the two realize that a killer may be only a few steps behind them. The author’s mystery story is reinforced by its amateur sleuths; Paul Winderman is the detective officially working the case, but Ann and Fang Chen are the ones who, when trying to make sense of their friend’s murder, begin inadvertently piecing together evidence—narrowing a motive down to keeping a secret hidden or wanting a valuable that Shao Mei had possibly stashed somewhere. Their Beijing excursion is not only productive (it’s where they first hear of the book), but also frequently amusing, as Fang Chen, who’s from Singapore, takes advantage of his first time in the Chinese city to go sightseeing, quickly learning that his favorite loafers aren’t the best for hours of walking. The murder mystery has just the bare essentials—very few clues and only a couple of viable suspects—but the short novel is a quick read, and any red herrings regarding evidence or accusations would have been underdeveloped with so little narrative. Chen does a splendid job of connecting the world of this book to her own prior work; there are various mentions of Yi-yun, Ann and Shao Mei’s friend and Fang Chen’s ex-wife, who was also murdered.
A conventional murder mystery made truly exceptional thanks to the charismatic and refreshingly unconventional protagonists.