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Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Mao Case

Qui Xialong. The Mao Case.

I've read 3 of Xialong's previous novels and reviewed one here; well, it is less a review of the novel than comments about Qiu Xialong, his circumstances, his connection with the Cultural Revolution through his father, and China in transition .

Chief Inspector Chen, Xialong's protagonist, is the head of the Special Case group with the Shanghai Police Department. Chen is also a poet who majored in literature and does translations of poetry on the side. The poetic element in Chen sets him apart from most of his co-workers. He is a policeman through circumstance, rather than choice, but he is a dedicated one.

The novels are a bit uncomfortable for me as I wade through the cultural differences that include rarely saying what one means, but using poetry,metaphor, implications, or euphemisms. It would be so difficult to navigate waters that require you to choose an interpretation of what has been said. Chen, of course, can usually do so, but even he is often stuck between meanings. His interpretation of a statement can be so important, yet the words themselves can be taken several different ways.

The political undercurrents are also uncomfortable. Modern China is much more open than it was during Mao's time, but compared to the West, it is still a tricky and dangerous environment.

Inspector Chen's current case is what he calls a "Mao Case" -- one that is particularly dangerous politically. I've read several novels dealing with the Cultural Revolution, but I'm always horrified. Inspector Chen's parents suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution (as did the author's), and he has mixed feelings about Chairman Mao. All discussions of Mao, even in casual conversation can still have severe consequences.

The books are interesting to me because they reveal that different cultures mean so much more than different languages and that even in contemporary China, Westerners have so little understanding of all of the underlying innuendo, significance, and ramifications that a simple conversation can involve.

Also of interest to me is the fact that so many individuals in Chen's world quote poetry at length. I assume that older individuals would have been forced to memorize Mao, but Mao's poetry is not all that the characters quote.

The dialogue is often stilted, but is that a result of the formality of the Chinese in their speech? Is it stilted because of Xialong's style, or because he is imitating the flow of a typical exchange? It has been about 3 years and several hundred books since I read When Red Is Black, and I notice that in my review I didn't comment much about the mystery.

I find the novels interesting and informative, but the mystery element in The Mao Case seems more contrived and the ending less satisfying. And yet...the Mao history and the complexity of living in China make the novel well worth it for me.

Fiction. Mystery. 2009. 289 pages.


  1. I've had the first in this series sitting on my TBR shelves for a couple of years now. I really should do something about that because I like reading about other cultures!

  2. Like Cathy, I have this one sitting in my TBR collection (although not quite as long). I appreciate your in depth review, Jenclair, about the cultural and historical aspects of it. You've definitely got me thinking I should move this up in my TBR pile. Great review.

  3. I've read the first book in this series and it is definitely different. I know what you mean about the mystery kind of taking second place to the sort of odd way the story is told. I keep meaning to read the 2nd book, but have not yet. I did enjoy the author's writing but I think I have to be in the mood for it.

  4. Cathy - One thing this series will do is make you grateful for all the freedoms you have!

    LF - I like reading about different cultures, and Xialong gives an intimate view of China.

    Kay - I'm that way, too. Some books you just have to be in the mood for. I'm in the mood for something frivolous at the moment!

  5. Do you think I can read this one without reading the others first?

  6. booklogged - Sure. It is nice to be a little familiar with some of the characters, but he explains them sufficiently. Having been my recommendation for Wild Swans, you will be familiar with the historical material already.

  7. I've got the first one in the series just waiting patiently for me... One of these days I'll get to it. I already like the sound of the inspector.

  8. Iliana - The books are an interesting look into several cultural, social, and political aspects of China. The writing style is different, but I keep coming back to Xialong's books.