Inspector Chen Cao: Qiu Xiaolong’s Mystery Series

The Inspector Chen mysteries by Qiu Xiaolong came highly recommended by retired JCCC librarian Andrea Kempf.  I approached the first novel, Death of a Read Heroine,  skeptically and read resistently for for the first 30 or 40 pages, but have been hooked on the series ever since.   That book won an Anthony Award, among the most prestigious awards for mystery writers.

The books treat modern China, but the shadow of the Cultural Revolution looms large.  I particularly like how his #1 assistant, Yu,  and his wife had to be re-educated in Yu-Nan.  I traveled in Yu-Nan and the descriptions of the Dai people and their culture made me wax nostalgic.  This same location plays the stage in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, which I wrote about in June 2010.

These texts could act as a primer on Chinese culture. The importance of relationships, literature (both Chinese and western), and the influence of the past are themes that weave throughout the series.  Chen’s father was a Confucian scholar, and quotes from literature play heavily in the works.  Inspector Chen was trained to be a literature professor and ended up fighting for truth and justice.  Chen also has an unusual interest in food.  The role of food to Chinese culture can’t be overstated, and beyond Chen’s epicurean interests, Yu’s wife works in a traditional state-run restaurant, and one of Chen’s oldest friends, Overseas Chinese (though he’s lived in China his whole life), runs a Russian restaurant.

I called Judge Dee books brain candy, but they are more wholesome than that – like brain cookies. If that analogy works, then the Inspector Chen mysteries are brain bran muffins.  They may not as quickly appeal to children, but ultimately they are more satisfying and better for you.

Twain noted that American readers like to learn things in their stories, and Qiu works overt lessons in Chinese Language as well as covert lessons in Chinese culture.  He also expounds in particular on TS Eliot.  It should be noted that Eliot was fascinated by Twain, and Qiu was educated in St. Louis, spittin’ distance from the birthplace and acknowledge home of Twain.

I’ve also read A Loyal Character Dancer, and When Red is Black.   All the books mentioned in this post are available in the Billington Library.