An engrossing first novel set in China during the 1990s that begins as a simple police procedural and then just keeps on getting more complex.
A published poet and translator of T.S. Eliot, Chen Cao is not your ordinary chief inspector of homicide, and departmental gossip has it that powerful people have been unduly friendly to his career. Not that anyone thinks Chen is unfit for the job—he has brains, nerve, and an unshakable belief that criminals are bad for China—but the fact is, he's in his early 30s, unsuitably young, some say, to be in charge of the Shanghai Police Bureau's Special Case Squad. The whispering climbs a decibel level when Chen gets that most enviable of establishment perks, his own apartment. Thus, on the day a high-profile murder case comes within reach, Chen is all over it, intent on cracking it in order to validate his worth to colleagues, superiors, and, most importantly, to himself. Guan Hongying, the victim, was a National Model Worker, that is to say, a poster girl for impeccable behavior and devotion to the socialist ideal. Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that there were other sides to Guan, that her famous probity was a sometime thing at best, that she was ambitious, even ruthless. Methodically, step by careful step, Chen and his staff assemble the case against the one person who had the means, the opportunity, and the need to do away with Guan. But that person, Chen discovers, just might be above the law.
The writing, particularly the dialogue, is a shade awkward at times, but Chen is an irresistible protagonist, likable and determined to make the honorable choices, no matter how dangerous. Qiu's portrait of China in transition, a potential eye-opener for many of his Western readers, is an equally compelling attraction.