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Xiaolong, Qiu - 'The Mao Case'
Paperback: 304 pages (July 2009) Publisher: Sceptre ISBN: 0340978597

I was initially drawn to this book, as it is set in Shanghai, somewhere I'd love to visit if I ever get the opportunity, but also because it is the first crime novel I've had the opportunity to read that is set in China. I was not disappointed. This is a fascinating book and I enjoyed it very much.

The author, Qiu Xiaolong was born in China and lived in Shanghai until 1988, when, at the age of 35, he moved to the US to study TS Eliot at Washington University in St Louis. After the events in Tiananman Square in 1989, he decided to stay in the USA to avoid persecution. He has written books of poetry as well as several crime fiction novels, and THE MAO CASE is his latest.

In this book, Chief Inspector Chen is asked to look into what he refers to as the 'Mao' Case. It concerns the granddaughter (Jiao) of a famous Chinese actress back in the thirties, known as Shang, who was a dancing partner of Mao's. What this really means is that she was his mistress, and she was one in a long line of dancing partners. Like many in China, she was later persecuted by the Red Guards during the cultural revolution, and she eventually committed suicide. Her daughter Qian later tried to escape to Hong Kong with her lover Tan, but was caught. At that time, any sort of sexual activity outside marriage was illegal, and the couple were jailed. Tan committed suicide and Jiang only survived because she was pregnant. She then died a couple of years later, leaving behind her daughter Jiao, who was just an infant. This story of Qian is told in a book Cloud and Rain in Shanghai, which Chen reads at the start of the case. The 'Cloud and Rain' of the title is another term for sexual love (lovers carried away in a floating soft cloud and of the coming warm rain). However, many things in the Chinese culture have a double meaning and Cloud and Rain also refers to the continuous unpredictable changes in politics that have happened in Chinese history.

Jiao is now in her twenties and was raised in an orphanage, not educated and until recently had a menial job as a receptionist. But shortly after 'Cloud and Rain' was published she suddenly became wealthy. She now lives in a luxury apartment, which she bought with a 'briefcase full of cash'. Internal Security are suspicious but although they have been watching her, they haven't seen any men entering her apartment, and have not been able to find out where her money comes from, if she is not being supported by a rich man. They suspect that Shang managed to hide something given to her by Mao, which has now been discovered by Jiao and is the source of her recent wealth. As any investigation that involves Chairman Mao is such a sensitive issue, Chen is asked to investigate while 'on vacation' and he cannot tell any of his colleagues at work what he is really doing. However, he asks a friend of his, a retired cop called 'Old Hunter' to keep a look out on Jiao, and to do a bit of investigating on the side to help out.

Internal Security tell Chen that Jiao spends most of her time at the house of man called Xie, who is in his early sixties. He owns an old mansion on the Shaoxing Road, where most of the other big old houses are no longer owned by former residents. The houses were either seized by party officials in 50s, or taken over by groups of workers in the Cultural Revolution. Many were then pulled down at the start of the nineties to make way for new flats, and Xie is clearly being pressurised to sell up to a developer. Of course, there is much speculation as to how Xie managed to keep ownership of his house until now, and the gossip is that Xie's ex-wife once had an affair with a red guard to ensure that the house was left alone.

Xie is important to the story because Jiao spends a lot of time at his house, both learning to paint at Xie's classes, and attending his parties, but it's not clear why. The parties are dancing parties attended by 'high class' Chinese from good families sometimes called 'old dicks' (from the phrase 'old sticks' from colloquial British English in the thirties). The attendees are very knowledgeable about life in the thirties, and Chen starts to learn more about this era from talking to them. As Chen is not only a policeman, but a poet, and a translator of poetry, he is able to go 'undercover' as a writer and business man at these parties.

Then one of the other young girls at these parties, called is found dead in the garden, and Jiao deliberately gives Xie an alibi, so that he is not taken into custody and investigated. Why is Jiao so fond of Xie? Where does she get her money from? Does she really have something valuable from Mao, given by Mao to her mother? And who killed Yang, and why?

The art of the double meaning, and the mixture of love and politics are the backbone of this novel. Because many people are still unwilling to talk openly about Mao, many things are talked about in a cryptic way, with several potential meanings, and Chen has to work out which is the true story. The love affair between Shang and Mao is shrouded in secrecy, but Chen has to find out about it and what happened to Shang and Qian in order to solve the mystery of Jiao's mysterious new wealth. He gradually manages to delve into the mysteries surrounding Jiao's life and her past. To understand what's going on, he has to find out more about life in the 30s, and what happened with Madame Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and also more about Mao himself. For example, he goes to Beijing, where his ex-girlfriend Ling helps him obtain permission to visit Mao's old residence in the Central South Sea, the Forbidden City to find out more about the way Mao used to live. While there, he also arranges an expensive lunch with the author (Diao) of 'Cloud and Rain', in the famous 'Fangshan' restaurant, where an array of fantastic dishes are served in abundance. There he overcomes Diao's initial reluctance to talk, by a mixture of bribery, flattery and assurance of secrecy, persuading him to reveal more about the liaison between Shang and Mao, even though Diao says it could all be 'hearsay'.

Inspector Chen is a likeable, 'professional' detective, and like many detectives of this type, his personal life is a mess. His ex-girlfriend has just got married to someone else, and at home he continually runs out of tea and has to offer visitors hot water to drink. He is one of the best detectives on the force, and his responsibility as a law enforcement officer comes first. The book builds up slowly to a tense and tragic ending and the mixture of the revelations about Mao's past and how they have affected people in the present are key to the story and how it ends. And finally, like all good detective stories, apart from telling a good story it manages to give a intriguing insight into the local (Chinese) culture past and present and its influences.

Michelle Peckham, England
October 2009

More crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 18/10/2009 11:32