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Death of a Red Heroine (Soho Crime) Paperback – July 1, 2003

120 customer reviews
Book 1 of 6 in the Inspector Chen Series

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Editorial Reviews Review

By any standard, Inspector Chen Cao is a novelty in the world of police procedurals. A published poet and translator of American and English mystery novels, he has been assigned by the Chinese government, under Deng Xiaoping's cadre policy, to a "productive" job with the Special Cases Bureau of the Shanghai Police Department.

Shanghai in the mid-1990s is a city caught between reverence for the past and fascination with a tantalizing, market-driven present. When the body of a young "national model worker," revered for her adherence to the principles of the Communist Party, turns up in a canal, Chen is thrown into the midst of these opposing forces. As he struggles to unravel the hidden threads of this paragon's life, he finds himself challenging the very political forces that have guided his life since birth. With party-line-spouting superiors above him and detectives who resent his quick promotion beneath him, Chen finds himself wondering whether justice is a concept at all meaningful in late-20th-century China.

Death of a Red Heroine is a book hovering uneasily between the spheres of fiction and fact, creativity and didacticism. For much of the novel, author Qiu Xiaolong seems more intent on driving home the actions and consequences of the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath than on the slowly unfolding plot. Tedious repetitions of the fates, under Mao, of "educated youths" joust with both the actions of the detectives and Chen's "poetic" ruminations, which, unfortunately, are infected by precisely the stiffness and arbitrariness Qiu is at pains to decry in his historical passages. The moving couplets Chen favors are potentially fascinating insights into the interaction between ancient and modern China, but instead of provoking the reader into reflection, Qiu offers reductive explanations of each and every poem.

The moments when Qiu concentrates on invoking atmosphere are both illuminating and rewarding: Detective Yu's wife's pride and pleasure in having brought home a dozen crabs at "state price" are movingly well crafted, all the more so because Qiu seems almost unaware of what he is doing. Rather than lecturing on the economic dilemmas of the modern worker, he lets Peiqin's simple happiness speak for itself. In the last quarter of the book, Qiu seems to find his stride, though his writing style remains undeniably awkward. Here Chen expands and relaxes, and with him, the novel. Qiu's debut, though anything but polished, holds the promise of better things to come. --Kelly Flynn --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Set a decade ago in Shanghai, this political mystery offers a peek into the tightly sealed, often crooked world of post-Tiananmen Square China. Chen Cao, a poet and T.S. Eliot translator bureaucratically assigned to be chief inspector, has to investigate the murder of Guan Hongying, a young woman celebrated as a National Model Worker, but who kept her personal life strictly and mysteriously confidential. Chen and his comrade, Detective Yu, take turns interviewing Guan's neighbors and co-workers, but it seems most of them either know nothing or are afraid to talk openly about a deceased, highly regarded public figure. Maybe they shouldn't be so uneasy, some characters reason; after all, these are "modern times" and socialist China is taking great leaps toward free speech. Chen and Yu make headway when they stumble on Wu Xiaoming, senior editor of Red Star magazine, who apparently was involved with Guan before her death. Tiptoeing around touchy politics and using investigative tactics bordering on blackmail, Chen slowly pieces together the motives behind the crime. The author, himself a poet and critic, peppers the story with allusions to classical Chinese literature, juxtaposing poignant poetry with a gruesome murder so that the novel reads like the translation of an ancient text imposed over a modern tale of intrigue. This is an impressive and welcome respite from the typical crime novel. (June)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Series: Soho Crime
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Soho Crime; Reprint edition (July 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1569472424
  • ISBN-13: 978-1569472422
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 1.3 x 7.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (120 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #116,417 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 43 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on November 21, 2002
Format: Paperback
The first book in the Inspector Chen series (followed by A Loyal Character Dancer) is a spellbinding meld detective procedural and portrait of China in transition following the Tiananmen Square massacre. Set in Shanghai in the Spring of 1990, the story starts with the discovery of the body of a "national model worker." The case falls into the hands newly promoted Det. Inspector Chen Cao and his subordinate Detective Yu, who work under the watchful eyes of old Commissar Zhang and Party Secretary Li.
Communist China makes for an instantly compelling and intriguing setting, as the police must wend their way through labyrinthine political considerations in a country where one's standing in the Party is paramount but change is clearly underway. The mystery and investigation proceed in a leisurely fashion, and the true challenge is not identifying the murderer, but being able to gather the necessary evidence and piecing together a motive.
Inspector Chen and Detective Yu are instantly likable and deeply-drawn characters, as is their circle of friends and family. Woven into the story are the their personal lives, which the author uses to paint a vivid picture of China just a decade ago. Most memorable are the cramped housing conditions, the continued reverence for elders, and the many many mouthwatering descriptions of food. Hardest to imagine for Western readers will be the influence of Party standing and its intrusion into personal relationships, especially when it comes to love.
This is a long, but never boring story that deserves wide readership amongst mystery readers as well as those with an interest in China. A well-deserved winner of the Edgar for best first novel.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Bobby D. on May 13, 2005
Format: Paperback
I am not normally a fan of mysteries as a category of fiction but my wife makes up for my lack of interest with stacks of mysteries around the house. This first book by Qiu Xiolong struck my interest with its setting in Shanghai, China in early 1990 a year after Teanammen Square. The book does not disappoint; it is a splendid mix of historical fiction, political and social observation, with a newly appointed Chief Inspector Chen who is a wonderfully fully developed character (as are all the characters in the book). You're not going to read this because of the case, a rather traditional murder. Although the victim, the red heroine of the title, is compelling because she was a "model worker" member of the "Party" and thus a part of the elite. All this Xiaolong points out comes with a price. The fun begins as The Party, via Chen's superiors are all over him and his partner Yu attempting to direct, control, delay and halt the investigation to protect the Party, and thus the country. How this all plays out in the plot are the twists and turns one expects from a good mystery. The book's structure is basically just a police procedural. However, this outstanding book is much more as it delivers the reader into the world of 1990 Shanghai with details in character and environment in a strange landscape of a political and economic system in a paranoid transition. The basic plot point is the decline of privileges of the old guard and their sense of entitlement vs. capitalism that Chen and his generation realize requires fairness and justice if it is to work. My only negative comments are that the actual murder case and motive is not that creative although it works and services the story.Read more ›
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A. Hogan VINE VOICE on May 21, 2001
Format: Paperback
Death of a Red Heroinetakes a police procedural to a new place: Modern china. Inspector Chen Cao is a poetry writing and loving special investigator,and here he lands a dangerous case. The "model party worker" who is fishes out of the water is not what she appears to be,and the inspector must go against his superiors and the "party interests" to solve the case. All of this is pretty mundane in this genre, though the locale,the heavy stench of mao and the cultural revolution linger throughout,along with the marvelous meals, and the excellent descriptions of daily life in "modern ' China. The delicacy of chinese manners comes across very well, the sexual retinence,the deep repect of elders still alive. Part sociology,part history mostly a damn good read. Unlucky in love,lucky in work, inspector Chen Cao is an interesting addition to the genre .The novel has many conventional mystery formulas, then takes different turns. Highly recommended!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on September 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
Qiu Xiaolong's Chen Cao novels are not traditional detective novels. Rather, they use the detective novel genre to paint a portrait of contemporary Shanghai as it slowly transforms itself from the center of the cultural revolution in the 1960s to its new role as the center of China's capitalist revolution. It is this struggle between the handful of winners and, apparently, hordes of losers in this transformation which give his series their dramatic tension. If you wanted to know more about China in general and Shanghai in particular from a person who clearly has a profound insight into both these topics, this is your book.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 15, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I read books to either A.) be entertained, or B.) to learn something. In The Death of a Red Heroine, I got both. While not a traditional whodunit, it still provides plenty of mystery. I also learned something about Chinese culture and politics, without having to read a dry textbook. I highly recommend this book, and look forward to the next installment with Inspector Chen.
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