One of the most special things about books is their ability, when well-written, to transport the reader to whatever setting the author chooses to tell his tale in. Death of a Red Heroine transports readers into China, just a few years past the tragic events of Tianamen Square. We meet Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a leader of a special investigative force in Shanghai. Something of an outsider because he can speak English but also because he is a published poet and translator, Chen represents those who are caught between the traditions of a Maoist Communist Party and the progressive reforms of Chairman Deng Xiaoping.
Throughout the book, Xialong quotes ancient poems and snippets from famous writings of China, along with other well known Western poets. In this passage, Chen recalls a famous poem from the Song dynasty (960-1160 ad) as he parts with a woman he cares for:
Where shall I find myself
Much of this tale interweaves the politics and traditions of China with the beginnings of the Western influence that has prevailed in such recent times. Throughout the novel, the reader is struck by how class-driven and closed this China is, and how little choice people have in where they work, who they marry, or if they could get an education.
Tonight, waking from the hangover-
The riverbank lined with weeping willows
The moon sinking, the dawn rising on a breeze.
Year after year, I will be far,
Far away from you.
All the beautiful scenes are unfolding,
But to no avail:
Oh, to whom can I speak
Of this ever enchanting landscape?
The mystery itself is symbolic of all these clashes, the Red Heroine being a National Model Worker - basically a poster child for the Communist Party. As the investigation gets under way, Chen and his colleague are hampered by the “politics” of the case.
In addition to the descriptive settings, we also have mouth-watering passages highlighting all the wonderful delicacies of Chinese cuisine, ranging from dumplings freshly made on the street, to a dish called the “Tiger-Dragon Battle.”
There are five novels altogether in this series so far. This reader eagerly plans to read them all.