This is the fourth volume in Xiaolong's
Inspector Chen series, but it is not necessary to have read the
earlier books to appreciate this one. The series, set
mainly in 1990s Shanghai (although about half the action in A
Tale of Two Cities takes place in Los Angeles), explores the
fast changing political and cultural climate of modern China
through the eyes of Inspector Chen who, like the author, came
across an English textbook as a teenager, which triggered a
lifelong interest in English poetry, particularly modernists
such as T.S. Eliot.
After graduating with a degree in literature, Chen was assigned by the government to the Shanghai Police Bureau as a detective and is now an Inspector in charge of the "special case squad" which investigates political crimes. Chen's job requires him to perform a delicate three-legged balancing act: staying true to his own moral guidelines, staying on the right side of the party, and staying alive - a challenging task considering the well-connected villains he tracks down.
The consistent characters in the series are Chen; his partner Yu Guangming and Yu's wife Peiqin, and Yu's father, a retired cop named Old Hunter who, in the first book, ekes out his existence on a tiny government pension but, in the second book has been given the honorary, and salaried, role of traffic advisor by Chen. Such nepotism may not sit well with readers brought up in the West, but the reality for Xiaolong's characters is that to fail to take advantage of the system to help a friend would simply be folly, and their manipulation of the system is entirely inconsequential compared with the corruption of the many senior officials ("red topped rats") who liberate multiple millions from the system to line their own pockets.
A Case of Two Cities fits into the police procedural genre (known in China as "legal system mysteries") but the atmosphere and insider viewpoint of modern-day Chinese culture and politics puts it head and shoulders above the average detective mystery.
Like P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh, Inspector Chen is a poet; he also earns a little money on the side translating Western crime fiction into Chinese. To Western readers it might seem implausible that Chen could be a poetry spouting cop, not to mention that virtually everyone he meets of his generation is also able to quote Confucius and a multitude of proverbs and poets. However, in an interview at JanuaryMagazine.com, Xiaolong explains that "most novels in China contain much more poetry [than Western novels] .... at the start of the chapter, at the end, and in the middle -- and sometimes they use a poem to introduce a new character." So he has tried to keep this tradition in his writing.
Xiaolong goes on to observe that not only can poetry be a way to discreetly reveal a person's character, but that China has a self-effacing culture in which, sometimes, when it is difficult to say something in prose, people will fall back on poetry.
This circumspection is one of the many charms of A Case of Two Cities. There is a formality to the language that is very appealing; threats are couched in such graceful language that it's doubtful whether a generation of Westerners brought up on a diet of sound bites would even realize that they were being threatened if so addressed!
On reading A Case of Two Cities one becomes conscious of how muddied is the line between honesty and dishonesty in countries such as China, Russia and India (as seen in Sacred Games) where the economies are growing at such a great rate that the opportunities for corruption are overwhelming at many levels of society. It could be argued that, in such a climate, it is not possible to remain strictly honest to the letter of the law, and thus it is up to the individual's own conscience to toe that very fine line between what is morally right and wrong. Inspector Chen's awareness of this quandary and his desire to do the right thing, coupled with his frequent revulsion at his occupation, are what make him a truly noble figure. The potential for corruption is constantly presented to him like tasty dim sum, but he resists, even though so many around him are gorging themselves on the opportunities.
Qiu Xiaolong (pronounced "chew-shao-long")
was born and raised in Shanghai. He
managed to avoid the worst of Mao
Zedong's Cultural Revolution by falling
ill with bronchitis at the age of 16, so
he was able to stay in the city while
his peers left to be "re-educated" in
the countryside. One day while sitting
on a bench in Shanghai's Bund he noticed
some people studying an English
book, which was the start of an interest
that grew into an academic specialty in
He came to the US in 1988, at the age of about 30, on a Ford Foundation grant. He chose to study at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, because of his enthusiasm for the poet T.S. Eliot, who was brought up in St Louis before emigrating to the UK at the age of 25.
Following the Tiananmen Square massacre he decided not to return to China and instead managed to extricate his wife, Wang Lijun. Today they live in St Louis with their daughter, Julia.
Useful to know
In Chinese the family name comes first, e.g. Chief Inspector Chen Cao's family name is Chen, his given name is Cao. However, the author's name has been "anglicized" on the book jacket so that Qiu is his given name and Xiaolong his family name.
This review was originally published in February 2007, and has been updated for the October 2007 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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