A Loyal Character Dancer by Qiu Xiaolong

Mao's legacy and the Triads are tackled in a passionate, literary thriller
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The Independent Culture

One reason why Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose was such a success was a sleight of hand on Eco's part. The medieval setting was stunningly realised, but our conduit through this world, the Holmes-like William, was a cheat: while he possessed the outward traits of a monk in the Middle Ages, he was imbued with a very modern sensibility. Qiu Xiaolong performs a similar displacement in this highly individual novel, which is set within the rigid parameters of modern China.

The social detail suggests a reworking of the critique of Mao's legacy found in Wild Swans via the form of a vigorous police procedural, but Qiu Xiaolong's real interest is in character. Notably, the character belongs to his youthful Inspector Chen, a poetry-loving copper à la P D James's Dalgliesh but otherwise unlike any other fictional detective. Chen is in many ways a traditional Chinese party man (deferential to superiors, given to aphorisms), but we're still invited to view him as a rebel. Unlike his superstitious colleagues, he does not consult the I Ching, and taught himself English before it was fashionable.

We can easily forgive other familiar strategies in this novel. Investigating a politically sensitive case, Chen is forced to work with a US Marshal, Catherine Rohn: yes, it's the mismatched cop duo again, but the novel transforms the cliché.

Wen Liping has disappeared. Her husband is a key witness in an immigration case in Washington. She is the loyal character dancer: Chen wistfully studies a photograph of her taken at Shanghai railway station, dancing with a red-paper heart bearing the character "loyal". But the key figure in the case is the Triad tycoon Jia Xinzhi, whose immigrant-smuggling ship carried more than 300 Chinese men, many of whom drowned. Wen Liping's husband's testimony is indispensable.

As Chen and Catherine confront some dangerous individuals, the relationship between the two becomes more fraught. The mechanics of the plot are dispatched with élan, but Qiu Xiaolong's real concerns are elsewhere. The author, who moved from Shanghai to St Louis and from writing in Chinese to English, brings his most impassioned writing to bear on the lost lives and crushed possibilities that are legacies of the Cultural Revolution. And while there are infelicities, this is a luminescent synthesis of the thriller and literary novel. If it finds its way to the bedside tables of Beijing apparatchiks, it'll probably be via the black market.