From Mao’s Cultural Revolution to capitalism, with a murder thrown in.

Death of a Red HeroineDeath of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

This novel is first and foremost a portrait of Shanghai in the early 90s, as China is substituting capitalism for Mao’s Cultural Revolution with breakneck enthusiasm. Chief Inspector Chen Cao is called away from the dinner celebrating his new apartment by the discovery of the body of a young woman, tied up in a garbage sack and dumped in a rural canal. She has no clothes and no identification and it’s a long slog before Chen finds out who she is. Finding her killer is hampered by Communist Party hacks who fear whodunnit may be someone the Party can’t afford to convict, lest it reflect badly on the Party’s spotless reputation, not to mention the Party’s strong arm, Internal Security. Everything about the case is political, of course, but then so is everything else in Chen’s world so what’s new.

But what is most delightful here are the word pictures of every aspect of life in Shanghai lived at Chen’s level. Want to make a call?

There were four phones on a wooden shelf behind the small windows. One phone was labeled “For Incoming Calls Only.” According to Uncle Bao, the public phone service had been originally put in for the convenience of the dorm residents only, but now people in the lane could also use the phones for just ten cents.

“When a call comes in, I write down the name and call-back number on a pad, tear off that page, and give the message to the intended recipient. If it happens to be a dorm resident, I just need to shout the name at the foot of the stairs with a loudspeaker.”

“What about the people who don’t live in the building?”

“I’ve got an assistant. She goes out to inform them, shouting with her loudspeaker under their windows.”

Need some groceries?

A long line stretched back from a fish stall. Aside from the people standing there, there was also a collection of baskets, broken cardboard boxes, stools, and even bricks–all of them placed before or after the people in line. At every slow forward step, the people would move these objects a step farther. Placing an object in line was symbolic, he realized, of the owner’s presence. When a basket drew near to the stall, the owner would assume his or her position. Consequently, a line of fifteen people might really mean fifty people were ahead of him. At the speed the line was moving, he judged, it would probably take him more than an hour to be waited on.

How much would you pay once you got to the head of the line?

“It’s all to Peiquin’s credit,” Yu said. “She managed to get all the crabs at the state price.”

It was a well-acknowledged fact that no one could be so lucky as to buy live crabs at a state-run market. Or at the official price. The so-called state price still existed, but merely in newspapers or government statistics. People paid seven or eight times more in the free markets. However, a state-run restaurant could still obtain one or two baskets of crabs at the state price during the season. Only the crabs never appeared on the restaurant’s tables. The moment they were shipped in, they were divided and taken home by the restaurant staff.

And quite right, too. Oh, you don’t want to cook for yourself?

“Steamed ribs with bean sauce, chicken with sticky rice, steamed beef tripe, mini-bun of pork, and a pot of chrysanthemum tea with sugar,” Ouyang said, turning to Chen with a smile. “These are my favorites here, but choose for yourself.”

Followed by a small segue into the origins of dim sum. Chen eats a lot of terrific meals in this novel. I recommend reading it with a napkin in hand to mop up the drool.

Wondering about medical care in China in Chen’s time?

“Dad, I’m calling from the local county hospital. Kangkang, our second son, is sick, his temperature is 104. The doctor says that it is pneumonia. Guolian has been laid off. We’ve got no money left.”

“How much?”

“We need a thousand Yuan as a deposit or they won’t treat him.”

How about a cup of tea to settle the digestion after a lunch of rubbery chicken and noodles?

There was a whisper of southern bamboo music in the teahouse, perhaps from a tape player somewhere. A silver-haired waiter carrying a heavy shining brass kettle poured the water in a graceful arc into the tiny cup before Chen. There was lore to this. In ancient China, teahouse waiters had been called Doctors of Tea, and the teahouse was a place of spiritual cultivation, as well as where people exchanged daily information.

Okay, yes, some of the exposition does get a little lumpish on occasion, and the plot does take forever to unfold — it’s 137 pages before we even get a suspect — and the resolution turns on the dea ex machina appearance of Chen’s old HCC girlfriend (you’ll know what HCC means by the end of the book, believe me). Inspector Chen, an aspiring Adam Dalgleish, quotes poetry ad infinitum and even has some published, Detective Yu is constitutionally pissed off except when he’s at home being in love with his wife, Commissar Zhang is always Party hack first and cop second, and Detective Old Hunter Yu and Overseas Chinese Lu brighten up every scene they’re in.

But the setting, oh, the setting. You will be transported across the Pacific and back twenty years, and you won’t be sorry. And you’ll want to go to Shanghai and Guangzhou just to eat.

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