Mystery novels are fun and easy to read, but usually devoid of any depth or meaning. Happily, Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong has much depth, yet still retains the quick reading style common to most mystery novels.
Chief Inspector Chen Ciao heads the special crimes unit, which is charged with handling "political" crimes. These are crimes that might reflect badly on the Communist Party of China. Corruption. Baby stealing. That sort of thing. Normal crimes normally don't land on the desks of this unit. But on one night, the discovery of a body in a canal lands in the unit. Normally, the case would be handed off shortly. But an old Communist Party Cadre, Commissar Zhang, feels the crime has political ramifications, and so it stays.
But Chen Ciao is not just a policeman, he is also a published poet and translator. He has been placed into the police bureau because it is a useful job. He struggles with his purpose. He enjoyed the academic life, but feels drawn to doing the job of a policeman well. One of the pleasures of the book are the literary sidetracks that the Inspector delves into.
Eventually, the body is discovered to be that of a national model worker. This is a person who is set up by the Communist Party to be a role model in a relatively ordinary job. Her job is to live up to the ideals of the Communist Party, and to do so publicly. In addition to her duties as the manager of a department at a large store, she spends much time at various conferences throughout China, representing the perfect Chinese Party worker.
Initially, she is believed to have been so devoted that she never partook of normal rituals of life such as finding a husband. However, the police soon learn that she had been the mistress of Wu Xiaoming, the son of a prominent (but old and dying) Party cadre, and a rising star himself. It becomes apparent to the inspectors that Wu has committed the crime. But how do they prove this under China's Party policies and with Wu's family influence fighting them every step of the way?
When I picked up the book, I wasn't really sure how a mystery novel set in China would read. In addition to the normal police procedural, the book is a vivid portrayal of life in Communist China shortly after Tian An Men. If the book is even a remotely accurate picture of the country, I have learned much. Everything from who gets to drive cars, to what happened to young intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution, to what brings one into disfavor with the Party in the early 90s.
Check out the book. It's the best mystery novel I have read in a long time. And apparently others agreed as well. It was nominated for an Edgar award for Best First Novel last year.