Detective Inspector Chen works in Shanghai in the 1990’s. He gets an assignment to take personal leave, but it is a cover for him to work on a case that Internal Security is also working on. It involves Mao and something he may or may not have left with a dancer during his lifetime. The dancer’s granddaughter has recently come into good fortune and the speculation is that it must be an item from Mao that is behind this. Internal Security is involved in case it is something potentially damaging to Mao’s reputation.
This book, one of a series, by Qui Xiaolong is interesting for many reasons beyond unraveling the mystery. The society is still recovering from the Cultural Revolution. For example, Detective Yu, Chen’s assistant, and his wife, Peiqin are solidly middle class with two stable paying jobs. They live in one room with their son and struggle to make ends meets. Both were impacted by the Cultural Revolution as illustrated by this passage:
“Peiqin had been a straight-A student in elementary school, wearing the Red Scarf of a proud Young Pioneer, dreaming of a rosy future in the golden sunlight of socialist China. Everything changed overnight, however, with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution. Her father’s ‘historical problem’ cast a shadow over the whole family.”
Detective Chen is also a poet and a translator of poetry. This case involves examining some of Mao’s poetry. That adds another dimension to this mystery novel. I don’t really know of the tradition behind Chinese poetry or whether Mao’s is any good. Here’s an example of a poem written supposedly for Madame Mao:
“Against the gathering dusk stands a pine, sturdy, erect / in composure with riotous clouds sweeping past. / What a fairy cave it is, born out of the nature! / Ineffable beauty comes at the perilous peak.”
My favorite part of the book is the descriptions of life in Shanghai and Chen’s trip to Beijing. I especially appreciate all the meetings that take place in restaurants and describe the various dishes. I spent some time in Asia and definitely miss the food – hard to get in the middle of Oregon.