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Two alluring mysteries set in China

by Mark Schreiber

Qiu Xiaolong’s police procedural novels, featuring Shanghai police inspector Chen Cao, have gradually shifted from the earlier themes dealing with the deep wounds left by the insanity of the 1960s’ Cultural Revolution, and have more recently focused on social issues more relevant to present-day China. His previous work, “Don’t Cry, Tai Lake,” dealt with whistle-blowers trying to halt the industrial pollution of a famous scenic lake in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province.

ENIGMA OF CHINA, by Qiu Xiaolong. Minotaur Books, 2013, 288 pp., $25.99 (hardcover)
THE CORPSE READER, by Antonio Garrido. AmazonCrossing, 2013, 494 pp., $14.95 (paperback)

“Enigma of China” begins with the suspicious death of Zhou Keng, director of the Shanghai Housing Development Committee, who was placed under “special detention,” called shuanggui, after an anonymous netizen posted a photo on one of China’s micro-blogs showing Zhou smoking a deluxe brand of cigarette — supposedly far beyond the budget of a mid-level public servant. Chen is called in after Zhou is found hanging in his room at the high-security hotel where he was detained.

Chen determines that Zhou had indeed done very, very well in his position — enough to buy a villa for his secretary-mistress in a nearby city. Had Zhou been murdered to silence him from implicating those above him? The case takes an unexpected turn when another police investigator is killed in a hit-and-run.

While Qiu’s fiction is typically strewn with excerpts from classical Chinese poetry, he apparently drew this work’s title from Salvador Dali’s surrealistic 1939 painting “The Enigma of Hitler.”

“For too long, I’ve been in the painting, or in the system, you might well say,” Chen confides to a female journalist. “Perhaps it’s time for me to get out of it.”

Realizing he’s playing for the highest stakes ever, and that solving the case could even destroy his promising career, Chen’s remarks are ominous indeed.

‘A peasant from a Chinese village was found murdered, hacked to death by a hand sickle. … The magistrate called all the local peasants who could be suspects into the village square … [and] ordered ten-or-so suspects to place their hand sickles on the ground in front of them. … [A]s the villagers, suspects, and magistrate waited, bright shiny metallic green flies began to buzz around them. … Within just a few minutes many had landed on the hand sickle and were crawling over it. … The owner of the tool became very nervous, and … all those in the village knew who the murderer was.”

This 13th-century episode of “CSI: Hunan,” as related by Brian McKnight in “The Washing Away of Wrongs: Forensic Medicine in Thirteenth-Century China” (1981), is known to the modern world thanks to the efforts of a brilliant man named Song Ci (1186-1249), who is credited with pioneering the science of forensics.

In “The Corpse Reader,” Spanish author Antonio Garrido and translator Thomas Bunstead team up in this fictitious tale of Song’s early life, before he became a celebrated magistrate and author of “Xi Yuan Lu,” the treatise studied by coroners and magistrates for centuries afterward.

After a series of misfortunes leaves young Song completely alone in the world and a fugitive from the law, his woes multiply when he’s left with no choice but to take up employment with Xu, a sleazy grave digger and all-around trickster. Xu’s flamboyant dishonesty, however, is only marginally worse than everyone else Song encounters.

Each successive chapter climaxes in a precarious cliffhanger from which Song must extricate himself — only to confront an even greater challenge. Hauled before an imperial court on charges of treason, his very life hinges on his ability to solve three bizarre and seemingly unrelated murders — and bring a brilliant and devious killer to justice.

Mark Schreiber is a fanatical collector and reader of mystery and thriller fiction set in Asia.

  • TripFiction

    Such an interesting post. Thank you. We have enjoyed reading Qiu Xiaolong because of the way the author evokes the locale.