The Mao Case, By Qiu Xiaolong

Murder most political – and poetical
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Comrade Chief Inspector Chen of Shanghai's Police Bureau is pulled out of regular duties by Communist Party top brass to solve a delicate case. Minister Huang briefs Chen about Shang Yunguan, a 1950s movie queen who became one of Mao's many dancing partners before falling from grace and, with her daughter Qian, being denounced in the Cultural Revolution witch-hunt. Now, Qian's daughter Jiao is causing suspicion through her affluent lifestyle. Huang suggests Jiao might have material she could "use against the interest of our Party". Time is tight: the Internal Security goons will soon move in with crushing force.

Two recent books have prompted Party anxieties: Cloud and Rain in Shanghai, a steamy bestseller about Shang and Qian, and a lurid account of Mao's private life by his exiled physician, which detailed Mao's predilection for young, uneducated girls. Chen is the man for such an investigation; as a poet and translator of classical Chinese verse, he's able to mine his knowledge of Mao's allusive poetic output to illuminate what may have passed between Mao and Shang.

This is courageous storytelling from Qiu Xiaolong. Chen has never been hard-boiled, but his previous five outings have mostly combined an intellectual pursuit with the rising adrenalin of a thriller. In all but the last quarter of The Mao Case, dramatic action takes second place to occasionally turgid literary exegesis. The first and most interesting body is Shang's, tortured and thrown out of her fifth-floor apartment two generations ago; the two fresh corpses during Chen's numinous investigation seem almost incidental.

Dedicated to "the people that suffered under Mao", this novel has more heft than the average procedural, and political complexity in lieu of action. Chen's misgivings about Party paranoia and the extreme circumlocutions needed to raise any issue concerning Mao convey the fragility of China's more recent liberalisations. Chen has been likened to Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse in his cerebral sleuthing; he also has a glass-half-empty ambivalence towards his political masters. The Mao Case offers a meditation on power, myth and the policing of history.