A Case of Two Cities: An Inspector Chen Novel by Qiu Xiaolong. New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2006, 320 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

In U.S. paperback fiction, the arrival of an American detective, or spy, in East Asia unleashes a predictable train of events. He will inevitably lock horns with a rich and powerful villain; exchange feet, fists or bullets with the villain’s insidious minions; and enjoy at least one steamy encounter with an exotically beautiful but treacherous Asian female.

Poor Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Municipal Police doesn’t know what he’s missing. While in St. Louis, Missouri, as head of a delegation of Chinese poets, is he assaulted by a muscle-bound mule skinner? Does someone try to slip him a poisoned Budweiser? Is he accosted by the second runnerup in the 2004 Miss Ozarks Beauty Pageant?

No to all three. But he does get his man, in scenes interspersed between recitations of classical poems.

Chen, a bachelor and English speaker, does encounter a possible love interest in St. Louis. Catherine Rohn, a U.S. Marshal who he had met in China on a previous case, speaks Chinese and clearly finds Chen attractive. But once again nothing happens.

Qiu Xiaolong’s reluctance to delve into interracial sex has me curious. I can’t figure out whether Chen’s creator is either bashful or merely prefers not to ascribe his character with an uncontrollable libido.

“A Case of Two Cities” nevertheless has plenty of intrigues, including a few murders. But to his everlasting credit, the author refuses to pander to readers just to sell more books or seek lucrative offers from Hollywood.

Like Qiu’s three earlier mysteries, “A Case of Two Cities” is about a China in transition. A fortunate few have become rich through nepotism, favoritism and corruption in all their sleazy forms. A real estate developer with ties to organized crime, Xing Xing, flees to the United States to avoid prosecution. But his tentacles are long, and not only Chen, but even Chen’s elderly mother face danger.

Qiu is quite outspoken in his distaste for how today’s materialism is deforming one of the world’s great civilizations, and his villains are typically portrayed not as evil monsters so much as shallow, materialistic opportunists.

In the ways it presents how China today is seeing both the best of times and the worst of times, “A Case of Two Cities” is aptly titled.

Forensic Footnote

Bangkok’s Heaven Lake Press informs me that Christopher G. Moore’s latest Calvino potboiler, “The Risk of Infidelity Index,” was released Jan. 25. Expect a review soon.

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