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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Beijing sleuth's treasure hunt a hit and miss


The Eye of Jade: A Mei Wang Mystery. London: Picador, 2007, 227 pp., £10.99 (paper)

Any study of Chinese females portrayed in English and American literature over the past century will find no lack of sources, from the works of Pearl Buck and Louise Jordan Miln to those by Han Suyin, Amy Tan and Jung Chang.

In the genre of crime fiction, such portrayals have tended toward a limited number of familiar stereotypes — mostly "Dragon Lady" vamps interspersed with tragic victims — as exemplified by works like "Chinatown Beat," reviewed on this page May 27.

While Honolulu detective Charlie Chan made his literary debut back in 1925, it was not until 1994 that a Chinese American female cop was to be featured in a series, when S.J. Rozan's private eye Lydia Chin appeared in "China Trade."

Now, with "The Eye of Jade," we have a mystery featuring a Chinese female private eye set in Beijing, written in English by a native-born Chinese.

Mei Wang, worn out by the demands of her job at the Ministry of Public Security, decides to move to the private sector. Investigation agencies being banned in China, however, her business is registered as an "information consultancy."

Mei is hired by an acquaintance to track down a priceless artifact missing from the Luoyang Museum, a jade seal said to have belonged to Cao Cao (A.D. 155-220), a brilliant general of the Three Kingdoms period.

The search for the missing antique — a device that probably figures in one Asian crime story out of three, if not more — focuses on the intrigues of Liulichang, Beijing's old market for curios and antiques, and the booming business of smuggling art treasures out of the country.

Essential to the story's backdrop are the lingering repercussions of the decade-long Cultural Revolution, when tens of thousands of intellectuals and "revisionists" were dispatched to the remote countryside to undergo "reform through labor" under severe and sometimes fatal conditions.

Author Diane Wei Liang, who was born in 1966, spent her early childhood in such a harsh venue and like Qiu Xiaoling, another Chinese producing mysteries in English and in whose works the Cultural Revolution also figures prominently, now lives abroad.

The parts of Liang's novel dealing with crime and detection are, unfortunately, not cohesive enough to carry the narrative, which gets sidetracked too frequently by Mei's personal life. Still, the characters and settings are authentic, and if Liang can wean her plot away from these shortcomings, I look forward to the sequel now said to be in progress.



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