July 11, 2007


Shanghai noir (Todd Crowell, 7/12/07, Asia Times)

Welcome to contemporary Shanghai.

And welcome to the world of Qiu Xiaolong, a Chinese writer who is making a name for himself and finding a wide readership with his Inspector Chen mysteries, of which When Red Is Black is the third in the series.

A native of Shanghai, Qiu has lived, worked and taught in the quintessential middle-American city of St Louis, Missouri, for the past 18 years. There could hardly be a starker contrast between his adopted home and the wild, bustling, corrupt Shanghai, the setting for all his mysteries.

Qiu is one of two exiled Chinese writers living and working in the United States. Perhaps the more famous of the two goes by the name of Ha Jin, though he works in the literary-fiction genre, not detective novels.

Their careers have followed similar trajectories. Both were in the US as visiting scholars - Ha Jin at Brandeis University in Ohio and Qiu at Washington University in St Louis - when the 1989 Tiananmen massacre occurred in Beijing. They decided to stay in the US.

"Ha Jin is a friend of mine," Qiu told Asia Times Online in an e-mail interview. "In some Chinese reviews we have been lumped together - not all that favorably. They ask, 'Why are you writing in English instead of Chinese?' Are we just trying to please a Western audience?"

Well, in fact, they are pleasing a growing number of Western readers. Ha Jin won the National Book Award in 1999 for his book Waiting. Qiu's first novel, Death of a Red Heroine, won the 2001 Edgar Award for Best First Mystery.

There is a lot of Qiu in his Inspector Chen character. Both are intellectuals. Like Qiu, Chen studied English literature and is fluent in English (which is why he is commissioned to translate the New World brochure). Both have a passion for poetry, especially that of T S Elliot, a native of St Louis.

But Qiu hastened to add, "I have never been a cop or a [Communist] Party member." Indeed, he says he doesn't much like Inspector Chen. "For me Inspector Chen is a kind of anti-hero, a survivor in the system, although he is trying his best to do a good job as a cop."

It's wrenching to see the compromises a decent man, like Inspector Chen. makes to function in an indecent society.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 11, 2007 12:52 PM

St Louis may not be wild or bustling like Shanghai, but it's plenty corrupt.

Posted by: jdkelly at July 11, 2007 1:17 PM

I can't keep up with all of the book recommendations. I have at least 25 books queued up and gathering dust. Read slower please! I'm spending more money on books than gas.

Posted by: Patrick H at July 11, 2007 2:12 PM

You wanna see dusty shelves....

Posted by: oj at July 11, 2007 5:50 PM