Enigma Of China by Qiu Xiaolong, the 8th book in the Inspector Chen series, involves political machinations in Shanghai (available June 18, 2013).
China is a country in flux, with a government determined to retain its communist heritage while also accommodating demands from a technologically advanced citizenry for increased personal liberties. These contradictory impulses birthed “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” a unique form of modern government at once rigidly idealistic and deeply pragmatic. Citizens struggle to reconcile political ideology with personal ambitions, taking advantage of the system without letting go of deeply Confucian values of family and face. It’s a setting built for secrets, that only the smartest, most persistent investigators can navigate toward truth.
Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau is one of these people. He dreamed of being a poet when he was younger but, upon graduating from university, found himself hand-selected to work for the police department instead. Over the years, he’s worked his way up to being second-in-command, his promotion to the top stymied only by his superior’s not necessarily unwelcome political maneuvering. Chen has gained a reputation for being a cop who answers more to the truth and humanity than to political orders, and in Enigma of China, the 8th book in his namesake series, this rectitude may finally prove to be his downfall.
It starts innocently enough. Local politician Zhou Keng has died while being held for investigation into corrupt practices by the Shanghai Party Discipline Committee as well as by a special team from the city government. Calling in the police department to investigate what appears to be a suicide seems like overkill to Chen, until he realizes that his signing-off on the case would legitimize the verdict due to his impeccable reputation. Cautiously, he grants Detective Wei, another veteran police officer, carte blanche on what they both suspect might really be a homicide investigation, but finds himself needing to take the reins when things begin to go wrong.
As Chen delves into the technology-driven world that first brought Zhou’s corruption to the eyes of both the public and government, he learns how powerful anonymous individuals on the Internet can be in the quest for accountability and justice. A middle-aged housewife friend explains to him:
“As for the term ‘human-flesh search,’ it was originally used to describe an information search that is human-powered rather than computer-driven. The netizens—the most dedicated Web users—sift through clues, help each other, and share information, intent on tracking down the target information one way or another. But the popular meaning nowadays is that it is not just a search by humans but also a search for humans, one which plays out online but is intended to have real-world consequences. The targets of this kind of search vary, from corrupt government officials, to new Big Bucks who appear suddenly with surprisingly large fortunes, to intellectuals too obsequious to the authorities, or any other relatively high-profile figure you might imagine. However, almost always there is an explicit or implicit emphasis on sensitive political and social issues somewhere in the target’s background.”
Despite being absorbed in a case that only grows in importance as he delves deeper into it, Chen cannot neglect his personal life. Foremost in his mind is his ailing mother who ignores his appeals to move from her crowded group home and into his spacious, modern apartment. His connections afford her the best medical care after she suffers a minor stroke but he worries, in good Confucian fashion, that he is not providing her with enough:
Quietly, he drew a chair to the [hospital] bedside, gazed at her sleeping face, and touched her hand.
Who says that the splendor / of a grass blade can ever prove / to be enough to return / the generous, radiant warmth / of the ever-returning spring sunlight?
These were the celebrated lines by Men Jiao, an eighth-century Tang dynasty poet, comparing his mother’s love for him to the warmth of the ever-returning spring sunlight. Chen was lost in memories…
Chen’s mother wants nothing more than for her only son to finally settle down with a good woman. Fortuitously for her, a new, tentative romantic interest appears in his life, both distracting from and aiding him in his investigation. In the end, though, political demands may prove stronger than any other bonds, as honoring his ideals compels him to make choices that imperil his career, his interests and, possibly, his life.
Qiu Xiaolong writes with an unhurried elegance that looks unflinchingly at the reality of modern-day China without passing narrative judgment, leaving it to the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about correctness and ethics. He blends historical anecdotes and classical poetry seamlessly into a tale of death and political intrigue, grounding it all in a Shanghai that is as realistically portrayed as any nonfiction account. His ability to present even the most dramatic incidents in a matter-of-fact manner serves to highlight the seriousness of what he chronicles while refusing to sensationalize it: a refreshing departure from much current crime fiction that uses gore instead of craft to make an impression. Some might consider the ending abrupt. I, however, thought it was perfectly crafted, circling back to the beginning of the book as a reminder that life is a cycle that, despite everything, continues as it needs to whether we are in the picture or not.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
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