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Sunday, April 20, 2003


Dancing detectives

Tiptoeing a fine line between politics, sex and crime in China

A LOYAL CHARACTER DANCER, by Qiu Xiaolong. New York, SOHO Press, 2002, 351 pp., $25 (cloth)

Popular fiction can be a fairly reliable indicator of changing public sentiments. One harbinger that the Cold War was beginning to wind down was the appearance of the now-famous police procedural novel. Such novels challenged the spy thriller genre, which had dominated fiction about the Soviet Union for the previous three decades.

In 1981, a year before former U.S. President Ronald Reagan made his famous "evil empire" speech denouncing the Soviet Union, Martin Cruz Smith published "Gorky Park," the story of a Russian cop trying to track down a murderer. Praised for its originality, it soon climbed to the best-seller list and wound up being made into a film starring William Hurt and Lee Marvin.

While the United States had established diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1979, it took mystery authors awhile to develop decent stories about cops on the beat in People's China. As late as 1986, Charlotte Epstein's "Murder in China" merely refers to the investigator in her story as "the officer" and doesn't even give him a speaking role.

This delay seems strange, considering that Chinese cops had been a popular literary standby since the mid-1920s, when Earl Derr Biggers, inspired by a visit to Hawaii on his round-the-world cruise, wrote "The House without a Key" -- the first mystery featuring Inspector Charlie Chan of the Honolulu Police.

In 1994, the British author Christopher West published the first of a series of mysteries (now up to four) featuring Wang Anzhuang, a middle-ranking detective of the Beijing Criminal Investigations Department.

While on a visit to Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookstore in Manhattan, I stumbled on "Death of a Red Heroine" (2000) and was pleasantly surprised to see that Qiu Xiaolong, a Shanghai native who resides in the U.S., had taken up writing mystery novels in English. Qiu, born in 1953, went to the U.S. in 1989 -- the year of the clash at Tiananmen Square -- to earn two degrees in comparative literature. As Qiu was 13 at the time radical supporters of Mao Zedong launched the tumultuous "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," his works give some valuable insights into its lingering aftershocks. Millions of urban youth were sent to the countryside to spend years performing manual labor. Now sanity has returned to the nation and modernization proceeds apace, but China is still haunted by its past. In slightly different ways, Qiu's two novels deal with the Chinese picking up the pieces of lives that were shattered by the insanity of those years.

In "A Loyal Character Dancer," American authorities concerned about the growing problem of human smuggling have nabbed a trafficker, Feng Dexiang. In exchange for immunity from prosecution and being admitted to the witness protection program, Feng has agreed to spill the details of the operation, on condition that his pregnant wife Wen Liping (women in China retain their surnames after marriage) be brought to safety in the U.S. Catherine Rohn, a Chinese-speaking U.S. marshal, is sent to Shanghai to escort Wen back to the U.S., but before she can do so, Wen vanishes. Unless she can be found, her husband won't testify.

Inspector Chen Cao is ordered by Party Secretary Li to liaise with the American. Chen is not your everyday Chinese cop: He's a published authority on English poetry who is urbane, single and smart enough to negotiate the political minefields that often hamper criminal investigations in China.

As Chen and his American counterpart begin searching for Wen, a triad (underworld gang) angle surfaces, making the story somewhat reminiscent of the movie "Black Rain," in which Michael Douglas and Ken Takakura team up to hunt down an Osaka yakuza. Shanghai's involvement with organized crime syndicates is nothing new, but Chen, who suspects a leak within his own organization, must conduct his investigation while bogged down with a female American partner who isn't even empowered to carry her firearm.

Qiu's books carry satisfying characterizations and a ring of authenticity about life in China, particularly the peeks into the personal lives of members of Chinese civil service. Whether in Shanghai or New York, the travails of the overworked, underpaid literary detective strike a familiar tone: "Chen opened his small refrigerator. There was only half a steamed bun from the bureau canteen, two or three days old, and hard as a rock. He put it in a bowl of hot water. There was little left of his month's salary. Not all the expenses he incurred in Inspector Rohn's company could be reimbursed. Like the purchase of the jade trinket. To maintain the image of a Chinese policeman, he had to pay a price."

Rohn, a young divorcee, not surprisingly finds herself attracted to her Chinese counterpart. The sexual tension between the two is palpable, but nothing comes of it. On the surface, it's because they are police professionals and are supposed to know better. But it's a sad fact that ever since Thomas Burke wrote the famous short story "The Chink & the Child" in 1916, Asian males have remained sexually marginalized in Western popular fiction, especially when it comes to romantic relationships with Caucasian females.

The handsome, hardworking Chen deserves better, and I wonder why Qiu, being an Asian male himself, couldn't liberate his character. Perhaps Rohn will invite Chen to St. Louis and consummate their relationship in Qiu's next book.

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