"A Loyal Character Dancer" by Qiu Xiaolong (2002)
"'Do you think what people practice here in reality is capitalism rather than communism?'
"'You have to find the answer to this question for yourself,' he replied evasively. 'Deng's openness to capitalist innovation is well-known. There is a saying of his: 'It doesn't matter whether it's a white or a black cat, as long as it catches a rat.'"
Qiu Xiaolong is a Chinese author living in the United States. A Loyal Character Dancer, his second novel, is part of his "Detective Chen series." The first book in this series, Death of a Red Heroine, was also reviewed here.
In this book, the intrepid Detective Chen has to rescue a pregnant woman from the clutches of a Fujianese triad. In this endeavor he is assisted by his trusty partner Yu, and also by Catherine Rohn, an American woman sent to China by the U.S. Marshals service.
The plot is fairly cohesive, and most of the loose ends are tied up in the book's final chapter. As a story it's less convincing than Qiu's previous book, it's too convoluted for its own good, and the novel's conclusion relies upon too many coincidences.
Detective Chen also grows increasingly annoying over the course of this book. He spends so much time quoting ancient poetry, and one begins to wonder how he ever managed to survive as a policeman in the first place. With his heart in ancient dynasties, I doubt he could ever cope with the tedium of police work, and most of his colleagues wouldn't have been able to stand him for long. I suppose that the author viewed him as a noble, oft-misunderstood "man out of time," but I think that in reality most people would see him as a pretentious ass. His poetic inclinations were used to much better effect in Death of a Red Heroine, while in this book he quickly wears out his welcome.
Catherine Rohn's characterization is another problem. Is her Chinese good? Is her Chinese bad? Is she familiar with Chinese culture? Is it really her first time in China? At times she describes herself (and is described by others) as an outsider, but at the same time she seems entirely too familiar with the workings of China, and her interactions with Chinese characters, involving someone who is supposedly visiting China for the first time, seem as if they were written for another, Chinese character that was eliminated from an earlier draft of the story.
Between Detective Chen's flawless English (despite the fact that he's never left China), and Detective Rohn's flawless Chinese (despite the fact that it's her first time there), we are confronted by a mystery novel with a Western character it doesn't need. In a way this is really too bad, in that glossing over the differences between these two people makes a more fruitful discussion of their cultural differences impossible. Such a discussion would have added a whole other dimension to this book, and would have given the author more opportunities to explore the state of late 90s China.
But maybe I'm being too hard on A Loyal Character Dancer. While it's not nearly as good as Death of a Red Heroine, it's still more interesting than most of the other detective novels crowding bookstore shelves. If you enjoy this kind of book, and if you're interested in China, I would still recommend it.