Chief Inspector Chen of Shanghai homicide is a man of parts. He writes publishable poetry, translates detective stories from English to Chinese, and, as he proves again in his second time out (Death of a Red Heroine, 2000), solves sensitive cases with P.D. Jamesian flair. When Chinese and American law-enforcement agencies join forces for the first time to target the often heart-breaking crime of illegal emigration, Chen accepts the assignment reluctantly. Used to tiptoeing through bureaucratic minefields, he can sniff out career-breakers with the best of them. But Party Secretary Li is persuasive, arguing that only big cases engage big ambitions. And US Marshal Catherine Rohn, he informs Chen, will be arriving shortly to take charge of Wen Liping, the wife of a potential key witness, currently in an American slammer. Her husband will testify only if he and Wen are placed in the US witness-protection program, safe from the reprisals of Jia Xinghi, chieftain of the ruthless Flying Ax triad, which for years has been making a good thing out of human misery. Chen’s multilayered mission: to keep Wen Liping safe and well-disposed, to keep eager young Marshal Rohn from triggering triadic malevolence, to keep himself a step ahead of envious bureaucratic rivals, and, oh yes, to keep his libido politically correct and resolutely reined in—Catherine Rohn being the smart, pretty, thoroughly appealing cop that she is.
Likable, admirable Chen makes a sturdy protagonist, but it’s China in transition—always interesting, often bewildering—that gets the star turn here.