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May 22, 2016

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Real drama inspires crime author

CRIME novelist Qiu Xiaolong has been grappling with the tensions in modern Chinese society for more than 15 years through the vantage point of his recurring protagonist, the redoubtable Inspector Chen.

Qiu’s debut novel, and the first installment in the Chen series, “Death of a Red Heroine” (2000), won the prestigious Anthony Award for best first novel by a mystery writer. It was also named as one of the five best political novels of all time by The Wall Street Journal. The tenth Chen book, “Becoming Inspector Chen,” will be released in France this September by Liana Levi.

Born in 1953 in Shanghai, Qiu dropped out of high school during his junior year and was sent to apprentice in a small garment factory, where he remained for seven years.

In 1977, when university entrance exams were finally restored after the “culture revolution” (1966-76), Qui became one of the first batch of students admitted to East China Normal University, where he majored in English.

At the age of 35, Qiu went to the United States to further his studies into the works of T.S. Eliot. Having earned his doctorate in comparative literature from Washington University in 1995, Qiu remained in the country and began working as a teacher, writer and translator in St Louis, Missouri (Eliot’s hometown).

“I (started) writing in English because I wanted to give a voice to my understanding of Chinese culture — past and present — and to find new readers in the West,” Qiu told Shanghai Daily.

Qiu’s mysteries have been translated into some 20 languages, including French, Norwegian, Russian, Hungarian, Greek Japanese and Chinese. Outside of the United States, original English versions are marketed in the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

Plans are also underway to bring the adventures of Inspector Chen to the big screen through a German, Australian and Chinese joint-venture.

Inspector Chen Cao

In his 2015 novel “Shanghai Redemption,” Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Department finds himself once again enmeshed in scandal, this time involving the private lives of high-ranking officials and the cover-up of the murder of an American businessman. Having ruffled plenty of feathers with his previous investigations, Chen finds himself alone, isolated and hunted by powerful enemies.

The plot of the novel parallels a real-life scandal, namely the downfall of Bo Xilai and his wife Bogu Kailai. The once-powerful pair fell from grace soon after Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun fled to the American Consulate in Chengdu when he feared that Bo was plotting his murder. To many who followed the case of Bo and his wife, the details of their corrupt and illegal dealings seemed ripped from the pages of a thriller.

Qiu, who drew inspiration from the Bo saga, told an audience at the recent M 2016 Shanghai International Literary Festival that “the facts of this case (surpass) the imagination of any writer of crime tales.”

The author went on to say: “I had to subtract, rather than add. In my novel, Inspector Chen remains too much of an idealist to consider doing something like Wang did, even though he is aware that his survival lies in taking such an action.”

A thinking cop and an intellectual, Inspector Chen is a complicated multi-dimensional character. He works within the system, yet at the same time keeps himself at a distance from it. He is a Communist Party member and an intellectual with his own moral standards. He is also a man of refinement and taste who enjoys Chinese food nearly as much as writing and quoting poetry — much like Qiu himself, who says he’s a poet at heart.

Poetry plays a central role in the Inspector Chen mysteries, with frequent allusions to classical Chinese poems as well as sprinklings of Qiu’s own verses found throughout the series.

“I always wanted to smuggle some poems into my stories,” said Qiu. “My publisher first disagreed with me, but I persuaded him by saying that in classical Chinese thrillers, it’s always the poems that give the clues.”

Qiu sat down recently with Shanghai Daily to discuss his experience as a writer.

Q: How did you start writing crime novels in English?

A: I left for the US in the late 80s, and when I finally came back a decade later, I found life back in China had changed dramatically. I wanted to write about these changes for foreign readers who also wanted to understand what was going on in China.

As I sought a frame for the novel, I decided on crime fiction... It’s very easy for a cop to move around and ask questions and read documents others cannot.

Q: What is the biggest problem when you write about Chinese concepts and phenomena in English?

A: Wording is always a problem if I want to describe something that is typically Chinese. For example, some essential concepts in the Chinese culinary experience do not exist in the English language. The highest compliment a Chinese gourmet could think of paying is xian. In terms of etymology, xian consists of two components, fish (yu) and lamb (yang), but the word applies to any dish — even in a vegetarian restaurant. “Delicious” would be the best corresponding word in English, but it is way too general, too vague and incapable of signifying a taste unique to the Chinese palate.

Q: Who is your favorite character in the Inspector Chen stories?

A: Each Inspector Chen story can be read independently, and each story tries to address one hot issue in China. “The Enigma of China” is about the housing bubble in real estate development; “Don’t Cry, Tai Lake” focuses on environmental contamination. Each time when Inspector Chen and his sidekick Detective Yu get headaches, it’s always Peiqin, Yu’s wife, who gives them inspiration. She has a pulling effect on the stories, and is thus my favorite.

Q: Have you ever experienced writer’s block after so many years with Inspector Chen?

A: No, I am not yet done with Inspector Chen’s investigations, though he may not have all the answers. There are so many mysteries in China yet to be solved due to the rapid social and economic progress of the past three decades. I don’t even have to make up the twists and turns.


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