Finally finished reading Qiu Xialong’s “When Red is Black.” (in a past post, I linked to a Newsweek interview on the author). Now, I never read the Chief Inspector Chen of Shanghai series before, so this was interesting.
As a detective mystery – something of a disappointment – I really couldn’t find very much empathy for the murdered victim. She seemed a bit of a cypher – a professor who never gave up on the love she had for male prof during the Cultural Revolution – yet there’s doubt as to what was this love (they couldn’t have had an affair when the re-education camp would never have given them any privacy) and what personal gains may have been involved (did she use him?). The whole who-did-it was kind of weak – was it an inside job, done by the neighbors – but how likely, when none of the suspects had motives that worked?
But, as a novel – intruiging. Very strongly written, interesting style – very literary, even – and the vividness of the setting and the tension of living in a China that was/is in flux – more than made up for the weak mystery.
There were some odd errors – missing attributions (ex., placement of a paragraph would make a dialog look like someone else’s dialog, but it was really a continuation of, say, Inspector Chen’s observations – a simple “said Chen” would have clarified confusion) or slight grammatical errors or typos (Message to copy editor – hello, are you doing your job?). I’ve noticed too many books like that these days (not just in books by an author whose first language may not be English; read one or two of Anne Perry’s books and you’d wonder if the rush to print was a little too rushed). What’s with the publishing business? Take your time and edit properly!
Substantively speaking, Qiu’s book reminded me a lot of reading other literary detectives (guys who let their sidekicks do the legwork while they, say, quote poetry, drink booze (although Chen didn’t do that too much), flirt with women (intentionally or not), and think too much) – Qiu’s Chen was sort of like Colin Dexter’s Chief Inspector Morse or P.D. James’ Commander Dalgiesh (who, like Chen, is also a published poet) – which I have to say is my way of complimenting Qiu – he has an original spin on this kind of detective. Chen’s sort of bland, yes, but then again you kind of have to be a slightly repressed, career-driven, poetic minded person to deal with the “Communist” society in flux (plenty of ironies are portrayed, when you have characters who spout the party policies, but have their side businesses to get – say, food or something – on the table, since the government’s not doing that anymore).
The portrayal of Shanghai in the 1990’s seemed cool – certainly all the references to food would make foodies grin. (but, even if the setting is 1990’s, it felt an awful lot like the the early 2000’s – with the references to cell phones – but I’m hardly an expert on late 20th Century/early 21st century urban China).
Chen and his sidekick Yu have to deal with bureaucratic crap, corruption, and other stuff (balancing the needs of the family versus the needs of one’s self) – no differently than other detectives. I’ll see about reading their adventures again another time – maybe my mysteries reading is too oriented in America and Britain?
As the “Justice League” cartoon dvds were some of my Christmas presents and I’ve no life to speak of (or I’m procrastinating as usual – take your pick) – I’ve been watching a whole bunch of episodes this weekend so far. Thumbs up for this series – but then my geek side gets all happy seeing the superheroes do their thing.
The comic strip Funky Winkerbean has now stepped into a phase that probably only Garry Trudeau’s “Doonesbury” is already familiar – removing a familiar character’s trademark headgear. Like Doonesbury’s B.D., Funky’s longtime high school band director character Harry Dingle has always worn his marching band cap – it got to a point that you figure the character has no eyes (the visor thing always covered it). Now, I’m hardly a longtime reader of the comic strip, but it was pretty obvious that this guy, being that his marching band is his life, probably never took his cap off. Big revelation this week: Harry’s slowly losing his hearing, so he agreed to give up being band director to be the school’s music supervisor – and he’s NOT wearing his cap. In fact, he was hard to recognize (without his scowl, seriously, he looks like some brand spanking new character). This is as shocking as B.D. having his helmet removed after 30 years with it on (ok, yeah, B.D. also lost half of a leg, but really – his helmet made him the much-too-angry Doonesbury character that he was for so long). Weird!