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Sunday, July 17, 2005



Is it a crime to want realism?

DRAGON'S EYE, by Andy Oakes. Overlook TP, 2005, 460 pp., $14.95 (paper).

Eight horribly mutilated bodies are found chained together in Shanghai's Huangpu River. Four of the corpses, the autopsies reveal, turn out to be recently executed criminals; two others are European males; one appears to be an overseas Chinese with tattoos that suggest a gang connection; and one is an Asian female several months pregnant.

In other words, we have a serious incident that screams involvement of an organized, well-funded criminal group. Shanghai's chief forensic pathologist is so intimidated that he refuses to touch it.

When senior investigator Sun Piao of the Public Security Bureau lands the case, he's not only discouraged from energetically pursuing the perpetrators; those who help him wind up getting murdered. Everyone close to him, including his klutzy, comically foul-mouthed subordinate Yaobang, is endangered. He's eventually set up to take a fall and threatened with arrest.

As if Sun doesn't have enough problems, a Westerner -- an obligatory figure in such stories -- walks onto the page. American Barbara Hayes arrives in Shanghai to search for her missing son, who turns out to be one of those eight corpses dropped into the Huangpu. The smuggling out of rare antiques -- the kind that people are always killing for -- appears to be involved, and when it becomes known that exports of the body parts of executed criminals also figure in the plot, a devious English doctor appears on the scene.

In addition to the above components is another situation that appears indispensable to murder mysteries set in China. To wit, no plot is complete without political meddling -- or even outright obstruction -- as a standard part of the story line. This formula is regularly repeated in works set in China (or Chinese Tibet) by such authors as Peter May, Eliot Pattison, Qiu Xiaolong, Lisa See and Christopher West.

Typically in such stories, the investigations are hamstrung by warnings from a superior that big-shot party members are not to be bothered. The investigator therefore finds himself straining against an ideological leash and often political corruption as well. Does this bear any relation to the reality? Or at the very least, I wondered, do contemporary crime stories in China put the protagonist in a similar quandary?

Fortunately I obtained a copy of "Chinese Justice, the Fiction: Law and Literature in Modern China" (Stanford University Press, 2000) by Jeffrey C. Kinkley, professor of history at St. John's University. Kinkley has produced a detailed historical study of China's "legal system literature" (the euphemism for stories of crime and detection). Appealing to a mostly male readership, its "national essence" is said to consist of three basic genres: old popular crime fiction, official new bureaucratic crime fiction, and dissident new bureaucratic crime fiction.

In the first of the above genres, Kinkley writes that crimes are committed for petty gain and the literary style tends to be either humorous or melodramatic. The latter two are newer genres that represent two opposing directions. The liberal view advocates a more open and adversarial society based on the rule of law. In contrast, conservatives take the view that the communist leadership must exert authoritarian, or if you prefer, paternal, leadership over the populace. Many Chinese, after observing what has taken place in Russia since the collapse of communism, may indeed feel that even rampant official corruption and abuses of power are to be preferred over social disorder that will lead to the deterioration of public security.

If that's the case, then ideology might indeed transcend considerations over simple guilt or innocence. Perhaps at one time Chinese crime investigators had to contend with political interference to the degree espoused by foreign mystery authors; but I sense the descriptions of life in China in most of these works are perhaps a half decade or more behind the times. Where are the Internet cafes, for example, or the rock concerts, or the excesses of China's "nouveau riche"?

Hence the veneer of realism in "Dragon's Eye" wears thin in places. Author Oakes drops lots of Chinese words into his text, but he regularly scrambles characters' names, referring to some by their given name and others by their surname. And Barbara Hayes is able to witness a public execution in a Shanghai stadium, while the crowd chants "kill, kill!," a scene that does not jibe with Western news reports on how the death penalty is administered in China. (The condemned may be paraded before the public, but the executions take place elsewhere.)

The sheer manic energy of this hard-boiled police procedural nevertheless manages to entertain, but -- as is often the case in first works -- the author seems bent on piling on more of everything. These attempts at literary shock and awe risk further trivializing a genre that screams for a more realistic portrayal of contemporary China.

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