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Mao Lives on in Modern China,
This review is from: The Mao Case: An Inspector Chen Novel (Inspector Chen Novels) (Hardcover)In this, the sixth and latest of Qiu Xiaolong's Shanghai-based mystery novels, his inimitable police inspector Chen Cao is confronted with his most threateningly political investigative assignment. THE MAO CASE indeed reaches back to the Cultural Revolution and the time of Mao and his notorious wife, Jiang Qing (Madame Mao).
The story line revolves around a twentyish young woman named Jiao, granddaughter of a famous actress named Shang Yunguan with whom Mao had an amorous relationship that ultimately resulted in Shang's suicidal death. Jiao's tragic family history didn't just end with her grandmother's suicide, however. Her mother Qian also died young, reputedly in a tragic accident. Jiao has recently and without apparent income of her own or support from a Big Bucks "sugar daddy" taken up residence in a luxurious new apartment in Shanghai. She spends much of her free time studying painting with other students in the home of an older Shanghai man named Xie, but she seems otherwise uninvolved in business affairs of any sort.
The State authorities in Beijing, including the secret police, fear that Jiao has acquired sudden new wealth as a result of something, perhaps highly embarrassing or detrimental to Mao's image, that may have been passed from her grandmother through Qian and finally to her. No one knows what the item(s) might be, but the Chief Inspector has asked Inspector Chen to go undercover, getting as close to Jiao as he can to determine whether she has any such incriminating or damaging materials in her possession. Should Chen not be successful with his approach, the Secret Police will be given free reign to use their own, rather more brutal methods, to extract the truth and find the suspect materials. Yet what begins as an investigation with deep historical and political ramifications unexpectedly grows to include murder.
Although this novel is entirely self-contained, it contains Qiu Xiaolong's usual supporting cast of characters and love interests: Detective Yu, Yu's wife Peiqin and his father, the ex-cop Old Hunter, and of course Chen's longstanding love interest, Ling. THE MAO CASE also offers the literary features which invariably make Qiu's Inspector Chen novels so fascinating: the first-hand observation of life in modern-day Shanghai, the fascinating insights into everyday Chinese culture, and the engaging references to China's musical and literary tradition from Suzhou-style Kunqu opera (historical precursor to Beijing opera) to the four great classical novels to Tang Dynasty poetry.
Qiu offers explanations of the subtlety of Chinese writing styles (the soft sexual references to clouds and rain), and he brings to bear within the context of the story line both homely adages ("It's easy to throw rocks at one already fallen to the bottom of a well.") and lovely excerpts of Tang poetry ("There is always a loss of meaning/in what we say or do not say/but also a meaning/in the loss of the meaning."). He displays a sense of wry humor as well, comparing for example the collective, orchestrated chatter of China's newspapers over Hu Jintao's "harmonious society" to the "never-tiring cicadas in the trees" (a reference anyone who's spent a blazing hot summer in and around Beijing can readily appreciate).
The only drawback to this edition of Inspector Chen is the resolution of the Mao Case mystery itself. For the first time from among the previous Inspector Chen novels I have read, Qiu fails to find a convincing way to wrap up the conundrum he creates. The finale seems heavily contrived and far too implausible in terms of human behavior. The author's talent for story line, character, and sense of place go a long way to compensate, but the "reveal" is the whole point of mystery stories, and THE MAO CASE falls a bit short in both character motivation and the final details of the great secret. Some readers may well feel shortchanged by story's end, and not without good reason. On balance, still a pleasurable read.