When Qiu Xiaolong, the author of this odd, charming and quite political detective novel, was a teenager in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution, the only way he could read Sherlock Holmes stories was to hide his book beneath the red-plastic cover of “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.”
After the madness passed and reading was more permissible, Qiu entered college and studied Chinese and English literature. He particularly loved the poetry of T.S. Eliot . In 1988, a fellowship took him to St. Louis — Eliot’s birthplace — where Qiu and his family still live and where he has since written seven novels about the poetry-loving Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police.
Chen’s crime-fighting successes have brought him fame as an eccentric but brilliant detective. His eccentricities include the fact that, even in the middle of an investigation, he might pause to dash off a poem. He’s an honest cop who roots out corruption, which can put him at odds with Communist Party officials. Fortunately, he has the protection of his mentor, Comrade Secretary Zhao, one of the most powerful men in Beijing.
“Don’t Cry, Tai Lake” begins when Zhao declines a vacation at the Wuxi Cadre Recreation Center, a luxury resort for senior party officials, and sends Chen in his place. The resort is not far from Shanghai and overlooks the huge, once gorgeous Tai Lake. Now the lake is ringed by factories and severely polluted by toxic wastes. That fact, denied by the party faithful and regretted by Chen and a few environmentalists, is the crux of the novel — and Tai Lake is the author’s symbol of the widespread pollution throughout China.
Chen soon meets the lovely Shanshan, an environmentalist assigned to the chemical company that’s the biggest polluter of Tai Lake. Her calls for reform are ignored, and her job is at risk. Chen understands perfectly; as he sums it up, “The legitimacy of the Party’s regime depends on maintaining economic growth, so any regulatory effort that gets in the way of growth will be suppressed.” In terms of pollution, corruption and hypocrisy, the China that Qiu describes sounds a lot like our country, but worse.
Shanshan’s boss, the manager of the chemical company, is killed. The suspects include his wife, his mistress, his second in command, an environmental activist (whom pro-pollution Communist Party authorities hope to pin the crime on) and even Shanshan. Because of his infatuation with her, Chen begins his own investigation. It’s a conventional plot, enlivened by the author’s portrait of China and his many literary digressions.
The novel offers nothing as dramatic as a blind activist escaping from a house surrounded by armed security guards — what novelist would dare print such a fantasy? — but it’s of interest that the slain man was about to take the plant public with an initial public offering that would have made him and other officials very rich. This inspires a choice bit of dialogue: “What a pity! He could have become a billionaire.”
Throughout his investigation, Chen is frequently seized by the muse and, at one point, starts writing a long poem about pollution, one he envisions along the lines of Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” We are given several samples of this work-in-progress (“From the overpass full of sound and fury / you may see time is like water / covered with all the dirty algae, / empty cans, plastic bottles”).
Besides poetry, Chen often cites old Chinese proverbs, by Confucius and others, that offer wisdom such as, “If the fence is tight, no dog will stray in.”
Despite its political edge, the novel has an endearing innocence. In one moment of abandon, Shanshan dips her foot into the polluted Tai Lake, whereupon Chen wipes toxic slime from it and reflects, “Her bare soles yielding in his hands, her soft toes flexing against his clumsy fingers, she seemed inexplicably vulnerable.”
At the end of the story, the lovesick detective agonizes over whether a party man and “rising political star” such as himself could possibly have a “dissident” wife. The question is left unanswered, perhaps awaiting Chen’s next journey into poetry, politics and crime.
Anderson regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post.
DON’T CRY, TAI LAKE
By Qui Xiaolong
Minotaur. 262 pp. $24.99