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Mystery author #52: Qiu Xiaolong

Title: A Loyal Character Dancer
Series detective: Chief Inspector Chen Cao
No. in series: 2
Year of publication: 2002
Type of mystery: Missing person, murder, organised crime; police procedural
Type of investigator: Police
Setting & time: Shanghai, China; 1990s

Chief Inspector Chen, a young officer and rising star in the Shanghai police deoartment, is ordered by his superior to accompany and entertain an American police officer, U.S. Marshal Catherine Rohn. Rohn has come to China to escort to the USA the wife of a man who is an important witness in a case against a human smuggling ring that both the USA and China want to break up. But the woman has gone missing, and Chen is torn between the need to find her and wanting to solve an apparently gang-related murder. Rohn is not ready remain inactive while the Chinese police conduct the search for the missing woman, which complicates matters, as does a growing attraction between her and Chen and the attempts of Chen’s political enemies within the police department to catch him doing anything improper that could halt his progress up the promotion ladder.

The story has some good twists in it, but the attraction between Chen and Rohn is not credible and the old formula of the unlikely partners working together has been done much better by other writers. There simply isn’t enough conflict between them for either device to work well. There is a TSTL moment that is not believable, a rather stupid decision made by Chen, which, while it does make for an interesting little action scene, is out of character for someone who has been painted up to that point as being very careful and always planning ahead. The narrative progresses in stops and starts, being interrupted by Chen quoting or thinking about poetry, sometimes at unlikely moments, or by occasional infodump passages that slow down the flow.

What does make the story interesting and fascinating is the look into Chinese culture and politics. Chen is a presumably loyal member of the Communist Party who has risen very fast through the ranks of the Shanghai police (where he was placed by political decision despite having no training for the work) and it seems that his superior, who is more of a politician than a policeman, is grooming Chen as his replacement. While Chen doesn’t seem 100% happy with it, he does go along with it and manages to tread the very narrow path between being a good cop and a good cadre.
As I am not qualified to comment on anything related to Chinese culture, I will not comment on that, except to say that the descriptions of it in the book come across as believable, and I have no reason to doubt they are true. I will say that the city of Shanghai is as much a character in the book as Chen is, and Qiu makes it come alive on the pages.

Verdict: 3 stars. A flawed police procedural that is interesting for the glimpse it gives the reader into modern China. An author to watch. I am now waiting to get the first book in the series from the library.

The challenge is now officially finished and it has “only” taken 2 years. I have actually discovered more than 52 new mystery authors in this time, but I chose not to review them all as part of the challenge. Finding Qiu Xiaolong was a blessing, because he is (correct me if I am mistaken) the only mystery author I read for the challenge who is not the product of European or American culture. I did try to get my hands on books by other Asian authors and a couple of interesting South-American ones, but was unsuccessful, and I was unable to find any mysteries written by African authors about Africa or Middle-Eastern authors about the Middle-East. However, I'm sure they exist, and I would appreciate some recommendations.


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