Readers, it is hard to find good books. Thrillers do impressive business in the literary world, and yet few of them capture my imagination, or even fall into a 'literary' category, with bland one-dimensional characters, bad grammar (shame on them), and heavily plot-based writing that fails to develop themes beyond the principal crime. Some thrillers in recent years have been standouts: e.g THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, its sequels, and Costa New Book Award winner WITNESS THE NIGHT, but these are few and far between. Popularity doesn't necessarily indicate quality.
This week I asked publishers to send me their best crime and thriller novels, in homage to the brave and cheerful coppers who protected Londoners during the riots last month. A few had impressive plot twists, a few had well-developed characters, but Death Of A Red Heroine grabbed my imagination, took me on a slowly, intricately built journey that nevertheless felt sexy and slick, and kept me turning the pages deep into the night. Its main character was also a police detective. So it makes the grade.
Death Of A Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong is a crime novel following the intrepid attempts of Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police Bureau's Special Case Squad - Homicide Division, to discover the person responsible for the murder of Guan Hongying.
Chen is a poet and once literature student, allocated his job randomly by a government agency. Recently promoted and handed an apartment in a city with a chronic housing shortage, based solely on his relationship with the press and the communist party, Chen sets out to prove himself by solving the seemingly straightforward crime of the murder of an unidentified young woman. But when the identity of the body is uncovered, it is revealed that it is Guan Hongying, a Model Citizen of the Peoples' Republic of China made famous by the Communist Party as an example of a certain standard of selfless communist citizen. As he discovers more about the emptiness of the years of her life, dedicated in service to the Party, Chen begins to see parallels between his own life and the life of the dead woman.
The investigation is slow and faltering, and the flow of information seems to be stemmed by government forces. Chen begins to feel the pressure of more senior party members, who feel his ideals may be too different from their brand of communism to exist together. This political strife not only puts pressure on Chen to close the case, but plays with his personal relationships too, particularly with his romance with a young reporter from the city's premier newspaper.
Then Chen and his assistant, Detective Yu Quangming, make a discovery that points the finger at the playboy son of a high-ranking party official, and Chen finds his job, his relationships and his own life may be at threat.
Set in communist Shanghai in 1990, this book is a refreshingly brave exploration into political China, woven around a tense thriller and likeable, enigmatic characters. Expect to want to eat dumplings (they are mentioned so many times in the book that I was ravenous by the time I finished), and to read the rest of the Chen Cao series, including subsequent novels A LOYAL CHARACTER DANCER and WHEN RED IS BLACK. I haven't read them yet - so do let me know what you think - leave notes in the comments!
Death Of A Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong is out in paperback.