The late Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000) once described living next door to the U.S. as akin to “sleeping with an elephant”: “No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast,” he observed, “one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
Some Japanese no doubt regard China, their giant neighbor to the west, in a similar vein, only perhaps as a dragon rather than an elephant.
Fortunately, we have the mystery novels of Qiu Xiaolong to lend us sympathetic characters while serving up some keen insights into life — and death — in the People’s Republic.
A Shanghai native born in 1953 and now a U.S. citizen, Qiu (pronounced “chew”) received an Anthony Award in 2001 for his first mystery, “Death of a Red Heroine.” “Hold Your Breath, China,” his latest, is the 10th in the saga of Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau.
Qiu’s earlier works dealt with the legacy of Chairman Mao’s chaotic Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the scarred victims left in its wake. In the ensuing years, China’s economy has boomed, but one of the tradeoffs has been severe environmental pollution.
“Hold Your Breath, China” brings back a crusading female environmentalist who Chen romantically encountered some years ago in Qiu’s earlier novel, “Don’t Cry, Tai Lake.” Chen’s high-ranking patron from Beijing, Comrade Secretary Zhao, pressures Chen to investigate the dissident, who is about to release a controversial video documentary exposing polluters.
In the meantime, Chen finds time to assist his loyal subordinate Yu Guangming, who has been assigned to a task force looking to find a serial killer who slays his victims on city streets early in the morning, seemingly at random, with a single blow to the head. To avoid having his communications with Yu monitored by government eavesdroppers, Chen communicates through Yu’s wife Peiqin, a restaurant accountant who serves as a sort of secret dispatcher between the two. This is not simple paranoia: After talking to Chen, an older man on the verge of retirement disappears, and is later found dead.
Chen is a complex character. An English speaker and published authority on Chinese classical poetry, he holds membership in the Communist Party. Since he’s earned the trust of a top party boss, he is often assigned to investigate crimes of a political nature, where he’s forced to tread carefully because arresting the wrong person might discredit the party or displease someone in power. He also has the heart of a poet, and the way he accommodates the apprehended serial killer in order to extract a confession is likely to strike some readers as overly sentimental.
In China’s cities, the government and certain major industries are bent on economic growth at all costs, including the health of the citizens. Statistics bear out that each year the toxic air in those cities takes many more lives than any novel coronavirus. As readers will see, it is this dreadful air quality that binds the narrative together.