Like so many other inventions and contraptions that have filtered down throughout history, fictionalized stories of crime and detection are believed to have originated in China. Whodunits set in the Middle Kingdom have been available to readers in the West for over half a century, first through the “Judge Dee” novels penned by the late Dutch diplomat Robert van Gulik and later through translations of stories featuring the incorruptible Judge Bao (aka Bao Zheng), a Northern Sung Dynasty official who lived from 999 to 1062.
These traditional stories influenced Japanese writers, and almost certainly inspired the “Mito Komon” TV series in which a righteous official and his trusted lieutenants travel about the country incognito, bringing evildoers to justice.
English-language mysteries set in modern China by a real, live Chinese author, however, are nearly nonexistent. One happy exception is Qiu Xiaolong (pronounced chew-SHAOU-long). Currently an adjunct professor at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, Qiu made his mystery-fiction debut with “Death of a Red Heroine” in 2000. Qiu’s series, now up to three, features Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, a cop constantly tugged between his poetic disposition and the demands of Communist Party politics.
Common to all three of Qiu’s books is the unhappy legacy of the “lost decade” spanning 1966 to 1976, when the Cultural Revolution left a generation of crushed lives in its wake.
In “When Red Is Black,” Inspector Chen takes a break from his lowly paid police job to make some money moonlighting as a translator for a developer, while his assistant, Sgt. Yu, does most of the footwork. The victim of what appears to be a “locked-room” murder is an obscure dissident female writer with a murky past. But the real puzzle lies in the densely packed living conditions of the old-style shikumen (communal housing complex) where the victim resided, which made it next to impossible for an outsider to enter without being noticed.
While fitting the genre of police procedural, this work is unsurpassed for the fascinating insights into how urban Chinese interact in their daily lives.