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Sunday, Sept. 27, 2009

Murder with hefty history


PAPER BUTTERFLY, by Diane Wei Liang. Simon and Schuster, 2009, 227 pages, $24.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by Mark Schreiber Mei Wang, the Beijing-based female private investigator who made her first appearance in "The Eye of Jade" (2008), is back. Burned out by the demands of her job in the Ministry of Public Security, Mei has opened her own small "information consultancy," where she's accepted an assignment from a wealthy businessman to search for a female pop star who's gone missing, and who later turns up dead.

Like the novels of Qiu Xiaolong, another Chinese who writes mysteries in English, "Butterfly" carries plenty of political weight. Diane Wei Liang's Web site notes that as a child she spent several years with her parents in a labor camp and as a student was involved in the democracy movement that precipitated the Tiananmen Incident in June 1989.

The story begins with a prelude set in 1989 in a gulag for political prisoners in China's remote northwest. Among the detainees is Lin, convicted for demonstrating at Tiananmen. We jump forward 10 years to find that Lin has been released, but is struggling to return to an indifferent society that has left him far behind. His troubles are just beginning.

As an investigator, Mei Wang is not what you'd call a master sleuth, but she's resourceful, tenacious and skilled at persuading people to open up and talk. She encounters a rich array of Beijingers, amid particularly appealing descriptions of the city's vanishing hutong (old communal neighborhoods) — most of which were demolished before the Beijing Olympics.

In the course of her investigation, Mei sifts through layers of lives wrecked — some by Tiananmen, and others by an earlier mass purge, the frenzied campaign in 1966 launched by Mao Zedong to stamp out the so-called "Four Olds" (old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas).

"Butterfly" is a vast improvement on Wei's first work, "The Eye of Jade," which focused too much on her protagonist's private life. We still get glimpses into Mei Wang's personal relationships, but the book holds its own as a crime story, balancing plot and characterization while weaving in esoteric aspects of Chinese history and culture. It's always satisfying to see a mystery author develop by adhering more closely to the conventions of the genre. Taken as a whole, "Paper Butterfly" is an affecting, tragic tale of ordinary Chinese caught up in a succession of political maelstroms, and the legacy of bitterness that continues to spawn new tragedies.



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