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Death of a Red Heroine    by Qiu Xiaolong order for
Death of a Red Heroine
by Qiu Xiaolong
Order:  USA  Can
Soho, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Every long time mystery lover will have their favorite type of mysteries, be they British police procedurals, harder-boiled American, female sleuths or historicals. One of the greatest thrills though is when you discover something very out of the ordinary which really enriches the reading experience. Death of a Red Heroine, a debut offering by Qiu Xiaolong, is such a book. Judging from the fact that it won the 2001 Edgar for 'Best First Mystery', many readers had the same reaction. Qiu Xialong is originally from China but now teaches Chinese literature at Washington University in St. Louis.

The story is set in Shanghai in 1990 just after Tiananmen Square, with Chief Inspector Chen Cao as the lead character. Although it can be difficult to read a novel about a foreign setting with unfamiliar names, Qiu Xialong does an excellent job of creating a cast of very human and easily distinguishable players. There is no need to have that alarming list at the front of the book explaining who all these different people are.

China in the early 1990's was in a difficult transition from 'socialist politics to capitalist economics', when new rules were being written and it was hard to know how to act. The characters are caught between a new cynicism about the socialist ideals and fear and confusion as to what the future holds. In addition to Death of a Red Heroine being a great story, the book also provides a fascinating snapshot of Chinese life ten years ago. One wonders what life is like now that China has been further exposed to the more materialistic Western cultures.

The story starts when the body of Guan Hongying, a former national model worker, is discovered in a canal outside Shanghai. As Chen and his colleague Yu Guanming investigate the murder they encounter many obstacles, both the usual ones of having insufficient evidence and some uniquely Chinese issues. Once they realize that Guan's secret lover was an HCC (high cadres children), the son of an old revolutionary leader, there are all kinds of political barriers to their progress. Although modern China is supposed to be a class-less society, family apparently is still very important. And 1990 is not the time to embarass HCCs and give more ammunition to a public which is already upset after Tiananman Square.

The author uses his literature background to great advantage since Chen was an English major in college who has been assigned a police career by the government. However, he is also a modestly successful poet who translates English language mysteries to supplement his income. Snippets of famous Chinese poems as well as some of Chen's own creations are found throughout the book and are a nice bonus. For Chen there is a parallel between his finding the 'evasive lead' in a mystery and the elusive feeling when an image suggests an idea for a poem.

As Chen learns more about Guan he is increasingly disturbed about the similarities he finds between her closeted life and his own. On the surface Guan was the praiseworthy worker at a big department store who apparently had no other life. When Chen looks at his own life he finds it similarly narrow. He does have a potentially rewarding romantic relationship with a newspaper writer Wang, but he constrains himself from getting too involved with her. So he and Guan both appear to have led lonely lives.

Although Chen and Guan have some close calls with the political powers that be, the mystery is brought to a very satisfying and well-written conclusion. Death of a Red Heroine is truly a wonderful book and the author a great new discovery. Qui Xiaolong has second book, A Loyal Character Dancer, coming out this month in hardcover, and I will be waiting in line to buy it.

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