I’ve been a long fan of the Chinese inspector Chen, who in previous mysteries uncovered tales of corruption in contemporary Shanghai. But this newest installment may prove to be the one too much.
The thing is, Qiu Xiaolong himself has left China in the wake of the Tian An Men events in 1989. He’s no longer welcome in his home country and has made his life in the US. That made him the right person to blend the western model of crime novel and the problems of contemporary China, especially the privilege of the high Party official, denial of justice and corruption cases. I can’t praise enough The Red Mandarin Dress or A Loyal Character Dancer or Death of a Red Heroin.
But as this book strays a bit further away from Shanghai (in Wuxi, just one hour away by train, a smaller city of “just a few millions” inhabitants with a famous lake and an industrial complex), Qiu seems uncomfortable and stifled in the new subject he’s chosen. Pollution and sustainable development seem too much of a compulsory exercise.
Inspector Chen’ protector in the highest Party ranks was supposed to enjoy a vacation at the Tai Lake in Wuxi, but he sends Chen in his stead. Inspector Chen is a poet and Tai Lake has inspired a lot of classical poetry, but as he arrives to the actual place, he discovers that the lake itself is far from clean due to heavy industrial pollution. His sudden ecological awareness is due to a charming young woman called Shanshan, engineer in a nearby chemical plant and whose stringent request for regulations have always been dismissed by the director. When the said director is found murdered, just before the company’s IPO, inspector Chen’s new friend is immediately suspected.
I don’t quite know what went wrong in this mystery. Qiu seems too much in the direct denunciation here (forgetting the famous “show don’t tell” rule)- and even inspector Chen sometimes is embarrassed by Shanshan’s longish explanations. Of course, the subject is important and tragic. All the more as it’s influenced by real events: in 2007 the lake was overtaken by algae linked to industrial waste directly thrown into the water. Millions of people had to stop using tap water, but even as the government said that they would shut down plants and launch plans to stop pollution, environmentalists were harassed by the police and the most visible one was sentenced to prison.
Perhaps the fact that Qiu lives far away from the place where these events take place is the real problem. Of course corruption and the remnants of the Mao terror are still very much part of the Chinese contemporary history, but newer problems and bigger stakes are now linked to the economic development and Qiu and Chen alike seem unable to fully grasp their dimension and weave them into the constricted and relatively conventional framework of genre fiction.