"Dark, gorgeous…feels authentically Chinese and it works like a charm." --Washington Post Book World on A Case of Two Cities
Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Department is offered a bit of luxury by friends and supporters within the Party – a week's vacation at a luxurious resort near Lake Tai, a week where he can relax, and recover, undisturbed by outside demands or disruptions. Unfortunately, the once beautiful Lake Tai, renowned for its clear waters, is now covered by fetid algae, its waters polluted by toxic runoff from local manufacturing plants. Then the director of one of the manufacturing plants responsible for the pollution is murdered and the leader of the local ecological group is the primary suspect of the local police. Now Inspector Chen must tread carefully if he is to uncover the truth behind the brutal murder and find a measure of justice for both the victim and the accused.
About the Author
QIU XIAOLONG is a poet and author of several previous novels featuring Inspector Chen as well as Years of Red Dust, a Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2010. Born and raised in Shanghai, Qiu lives with his family in St. Louis, Missouri.
Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai and, since 1988, has lived in St. Louis, Missouri. A poet and a translator, he has an MA and a Ph.D. from Washington University. He is the author of several previous novels featuring Inspector Chen, including the award-winning Death of a Red Heroine and A Case of Two Cities.
Read an Excerpt
CHIEF INSPECTOR CHEN CAO of the Shanghai Police Bureau found himself standing in front of the gate to the Wuxi Cadre Recreation Center.
His vacation in the city of Wuxi was totally unexpected. Earlier that Sunday morning, Chen was in Zhenjiang, attending an intensive political seminar for emerging Party officials training for "new responsibilities," when he got a phone call from Comrade Secretary Zhao, the former second secretary of the Central Party Discipline Committee. Though retired, Zhao remained one of the most influential figures in Beijing. Zhao was too busy to take a vacation arranged for him at the center in Wuxi, so he offered it to Chen instead.
Chen was in no position to decline such a well-meant offer, coming from the Forbidden City. So he immediately left the seminar at the Zhenjiang Party School, took a long-distance bus to Wuxi station, and then a taxi to the center.
He had heard a lot about the center, which was located in a scenic area of the city. It was something like a combination of a resort and a sanatorium, known for its special service to high-ranking cadres. There were strict regulations about the Party cadre rank required for admission, and Chen was nowhere close to that rank. Chen knew an exception was being made because of Zhao. Qiao Liangxing, the director of the center, was not around when Chen arrived. A front desk receptionist greeted Chen and led him to a white European-style villa, with tall marble columns in front, enclosed by an iron fence with gilded spikes and a shining stainless-steel gate. The villa stood alone on a tree-shaded hill, separate from other buildings. The receptionist showed Chen all due respect, as if the villa being allocated to him determined his status rather than the other way round. Without any other specific instructions from Qiao, however, all she could do was check Chen in with a detailed introduction to the center and its location: Yuantouzhu, or Turtle Head Park.
"Our center gets its name from a huge rock projecting over the Tai Lake, like a turtle tossing its head above the water. The park was founded in 1918 and covers an area of five hundred hectares. It is a scenic peninsula on the northwest shore of the lake, surrounded by green hills and clear water; it is considered the best resort area in Wuxi. As for the center, at the south end of the peninsula, it was built in the early fifties for high-ranking cadres."
While listening to her introduction, Chen reflected on the way China took for granted the assumption that the Communist Party cadres, having conquered the country, deserved to enjoy all sorts of luxurious treatment.
"Last but not the least, people staying here can easily walk into the park, but the tourists in the park may only look at the center through the gate. So enjoy your vacation here," the receptionist concluded, smiling, leaving the key as well as a park pass on a mahogany table in the hall before she left, closing the door carefully after her.
Chen moved to the front window. Looking out, he saw part of a curving driveway lined with shrubs and evergreen, and then further down the wooded hill, another driveway for someone else's villa. To the other side, there were rows of multistory buildings, with identically shaped balconies aligned like matchboxes, as those in a large new hotel. He didn't have a panoramic view of the center, but his villa was undoubtedly one reserved for top Party cadres.
It was a nice, large building consisting of nine rooms in all. He had no idea what to do with all those rooms as he walked upstairs and downstairs, examining one after another. He finally put his small suitcase in the master bedroom on the first floor, which commanded a fantastic lake view. Adjacent to the bedroom was a spacious living room, featuring a marble fireplace with a copper screen in an exquisite pattern, a black leather sectional sofa, and an LCD TV. One side of the room was a wall of tall windows overlooking Tai Lake.
Also on the first floor was a study with custom-made book shelves, some books, and a desk with a brand new laptop on it. The windows in the study were large, but looked out on the driveway and the hill beyond it.
Chen went back to the living room and started to pace about, stepping on and off an apricot Persian rug. His footsteps echoed through the entire building. Finally he decided to take a bath. He grabbed a cup and a bottle of Perrier from a silver tray on a corner table and settled himself in the master bathroom, which also had a scenic view.
Soaking in the tub, he had the luxurious feeling of becoming one with the lake, as he watched the tiny bubbles rising in his glass of Perrier.
Outside, a rock frog was croaking intermittently, and there was the murmur of an unseen cascade. Looking out, Chen discovered that the lambent melody was actually coming from a tiny speaker hidden in a rock under the window.
Of late, Chen often felt worn out. With one "special case" after another on his hands, he hadn't been able to take a break for months. A vacation could at least take his mind temporarily off his responsibilities and obligations.
Besides, there was nothing really important being handled by his Special Case Squad at the moment, and if something should come up, Wuxi was only an hour's trip from Shanghai by train. If need be, he could easily hurry back. In the meantime, though, his longtime partner, Detective Yu Guangming, should be able to take care of things there.
But it didn't take long before the chief inspector felt a slight suggestion — as if it was rising up from the still water in the tub — of loneliness, which was only magnified by the enormous size of the empty building.
The bubbles in the French water were gone, so he got out of the tub, put on his clothes, stuffed the paperback he brought with him into his pants pocket, and went out for a walk.
The center was connected, as the receptionist had said, to the park by a back entrance. Through the fence he saw tourists pointing and posing with cameras. He was not keen on becoming a tourist just yet, so he headed in the other direction, along a quiet, small road.
He had probably come in along the same route earlier, but sitting in the back of a taxi, he hadn't been able to see much. There wasn't anyone in the area, with the exception of an occasional car driving by at high speed. The road was fairly narrow. On one side, there was a wire fence stretching along like a wall, and a bushy, unkempt slope beyond it that stretched over to a wider road in the distance. On the other side, hills were rolling and rising upward here and there, interspersed with tourist attraction signs.
Ahead the road merged into a tiny square with bus stop shelters, a tea stall with bowls spread out on a makeshift table with a couple of benches, and a pavilionlike kiosk with a roof that was held up by vermillion posts, which sold all sorts of souvenirs. A group of people were getting off a gray bus, most of them carrying maps in their hands. The square couldn't be far from the park.
He felt anonymous, yet contentedly so. He strolled about, taking out his own tourist map of Wuxi, which he had bought earlier at the bus station.
He hadn't visited Wuxi for years. As a child, he and his parents had taken a day trip, riding from one tourist stop to another. Cutting across the square, he noted that it appeared quite different from what he remembered.
He was soon lost, in spite of the map. Like Shanghai, Wuxi had been changing dramatically in recent years. There were quite a few new street names that were unavailable or unrecognizable from his outdated map.
But he wasn't worried. If he couldn't find his way back, he could always hail a taxi. He liked walking — even more so as he slipped into the role of a tourist, a sort of different identity. Perhaps he was still not over having been pushed into becoming a cop when he graduated college years ago.
After passing a street corner convenience store with a twenty-four-hour-business sign, he ventured into a side street, and then into another one — a shabbier, somber, cobble-covered, and yet quaint one — which was almost deserted. This street seemed to fit into his memory of the city. Toward the end of it, he slowed down at the sight of a dilapidated eatery. It had a red wooden door and white walls, with a couple of rough tables and benches outside and several more inside, and an orange paper pinwheel spinning in the rustic window. Outside, there was a colorful row of wooden and plastic basins with fish swimming in some and rice paddy eels in others. Eels were usually placed in a basin without water, Chen reflected.
Perhaps because it was past lunchtime, or perhaps because of the location, Chen was the only one lingering there, except for a white cat with a black patch on its forehead, dozing by the worn-out threshold.
Chen decided to sit at a table outside, with a bamboo container holding a bunch of disposable chopsticks like flowers. It was a warm day for May, and he had walked quite a distance. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he was grateful for a fresh breeze coming fitfully along the street.
An old man came shuffling out of the kitchen in the rear, carrying a dog-eared menu. Most likely he was the owner, chef, and waiter here.
"Anything particular you would like, sir?"
"Just a couple of small dishes — any local specialties, I mean," he said, not really hungry. "And a beer."
"Three whites are the local specialties," the old man said. "The white water fish may be too large for one person. And I wouldn't recommend the white shrimp — it's not that fresh today."
Chen remembered, from his Wuxi trip with his parents, his father raving about the "three whites"— white shrimp and white water fish were two of them, but he couldn't recall what the third white was. Another local specialty he liked was the Wuxi soup buns, sweet with a lot of minced ginger. At the end of that long-ago trip, his mother carried home a bamboo basket of soup buns. He still remembered that, but couldn't recall the third "white." Perhaps he really was a "helpless gourmet," as his friends called him, he thought with a touch of self-irony.
"Whatever you recommend, then."
"How about Wuxi ribs and sliced lotus roots filled with sticky rice?"
"And a local beer — Tai Lake Beer?"
"Fine," Chen said. The lake was known for its clear water, which could mean a superior beer.
It took the old man only a minute to return to the table with a bottle of beer and a tiny dish of salted peanuts.
"The appetizer is on the house. Enjoy. So, are you a tourist here?"
Chen raised the map in his hand, nodding.
"Staying at Kailun?"
Kailun might be a hotel nearby, but Chen didn't know anything about it. "No, at the Wuxi Cadre Recreation Center. Not far from here."
"Oh," the old man said, turning back toward the kitchen. "You're a young man for that place."
The old man was understandably surprised: the center was only for high-ranking cadres, most of whom were old, while Chen looked only thirtyish.
Though the vacation had come as a surprise to Chen himself, he didn't say anything in response, but simply took out his book and put it on the table. Instead of reading it, however, he started sipping his beer.
Life could be more absurd than fiction. In college, he had majored in English, but upon graduation he was state-assigned to a job in the Shanghai Police Bureau, where, to the puzzlement of others as well as himself, he had been rising steadily through the ranks. At the Zhenjiang Party School, some predicted that Chen had a most promising official career ahead of him, that he was capable of moving much further than his current job as chief inspector.
But here, he was quite content to be a nameless tourist on vacation, with a bottle of beer and a mystery novel. Su Shi, one of his favorite Song dynasty poets, had once declared it regrettable to "have no self to claim," but at the moment, at least, Chen did not find it so.
The old man was bringing the dishes Chen had ordered.
"Thank you," Chen said, looking up. "How is business?"
"Not too good. People are telling stories, but it's really the same everywhere."
What stories? Chen wondered. Presumably about the poor quality of the food. That wasn't uncommon for a tourist city, where customers seldom go to a restaurant a second time, stories or not. But the ribs were delicious, done nicely with plenty of mixed sauce, rich in color and taste. The sliced lotus root, too, proved to be crisp, fresh, yet surprisingly compatible with the sweet sticky rice filling.
It was a rare privilege to be the only customer in a place, he thought, crunching another slice of the pinkish lotus root. Soon, he had a second beer, without having opened the book yet, and his mind began wandering.
So many days, where have you been — / like a traveling cloud / that forgets to come back / unaware of the spring drawing to an end?
Shaking his head, he pulled himself out of the unexpected wave of self-pity, and took out his cell phone. He dialed Detective Yu back in Shanghai.
"Sorry, Yu, that I didn't come back to Shanghai before leaving on vacation. Zhengjiang was simply closer to Wuxi."
"Don't worry about it, Chief. There are nothing but small cases here, and none of them special, either. There's nothing for our Special Case Squad."
"Was there any reaction to my extended absence in the bureau?"
"With your vacation having been arranged by Comrade Secretary Zhao, what could Party Secretary Li say?"
Party Secretary Li had become increasingly wary of Chen, whom he was beginning to see as a threat to Li's position as the top Party official in the bureau. Li was headed to retirement, but — if things worked out his way — not that soon.
"Keep me posted, Yu. Call me anytime you like. I don't think there is anything for me to do here."
"Are you so sure?"
Chen knew the reason for his partner's skepticism. Chen had had vacations before — unplanned, unexplained vacations — that turned out to be nothing more than a pretext for an investigation. What's more, Chen had once investigated a highly sensitive case under Zhao's supervision.
"Zhao didn't mention anything to me," Chen said. "Remember the anticorruption case? He promised me a vacation then, and I think that's what this is about."
"That's good, boss. Enjoy your vacation. I won't bother you unless it's an emergency," Yu said, then added, "Oh, you know what? You have a fan in Wuxi. I met a recent graduate from the Police Academy in a meeting two or three months ago. Sergeant Huang Kang. He bugged me for stories about you."
"He'll never forgive me if I don't tell him that you are vacationing in Wuxi."
"Let me enjoy myself in peace for a couple of days first. Once Huang knows, he, as well as others, may come over, bringing with them cases they want to discuss. My vacation would become anything but a quiet one," Chen said. "But what's his number? I'll call him later, and say that you insisted on it."
Chen copied the number into his notebook. There was no hurry. He would wait until a day or two before the end of his vacation to call.
Chen put away his cell phone and turned his attention to the book he'd brought with him. It was a novel with an interesting title: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, and a Guangxi publisher had been pushing him to translate it. Mysteries had begun to sell well, and the contract they were offering for the translation wasn't bad. However, in comparison to the occasional business translations that he did for his Big Buck businessmen acquaintances, it was nothing.
Chen had read only two or three pages when he noticed someone approaching the eatery. Looking up, he glimpsed a young, slender woman, who glanced in his direction, dipping her head like a shy lotus flower in a cool breeze.
She appeared to be in her mid-twenties. She was wearing a black fitted blazer, a white blouse, jeans, and black pumps, and she carried a satchel slung over her shoulder. She moved to the other outside table. She had a bottle of water in her hand, ignoring the proprietor's sign objecting to customers bringing in their own drinks. Instead of calling for a menu, she shouted, "I'm here, Uncle Wang."
"One minute," the old man said, sticking his head out. "Do you have to work this weekend, Shanshan?"
"I'm just checking a new test at the office, but it's getting more complicated. Don't worry. At most it will be a couple of hours in the afternoon."
Apparently she was no stranger here. The old man, surnamed Wang, was probably not a relative, or she would not have prefixed Wang with Uncle.
Excerpted from "Don't Cry, Tai Lake"
Copyright © 2012 Qiu Xiaolong.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In Don't Cry, Tai Lake, Qiu Xiaolong's detective, Inspector Chen, investigates the murder of the head of a state-run chemical company that is about to go public. Chen is supposed to be on vacation--a vacation arranged for him by his mentor, Comrade Secretary Zhao. Apparently, Zhao wants to bring the lake's pollution to the attention of the Party, so he needs Chen to visit Wuxi and write a report on what he finds there (which in this case is murder).Chen not only finds a murder mystery, but a romance, too, with a young environmental scientist, Shanshan. There is a air of nostalgia about the entire novel, partly because of Chen's own backstory, but also because of his frequent references to poetry, both Chinese and western. There is also the contrast between the appearance of the lake and its hidden but serious environmental problems because of China's boom in terms of development.I enjoyed the book, not so much because of the mystery, but because of Chen himself as a character and because of his poetry.
I have been reading his work for over ten years. He has replaced Orwell as my favorite author. I find the mysteries to be secondary to an exploration of China's culture and politics, but Don't Cry Tai Lake had an added features because for the first time he has really moved me emotionally. I think many readers will she'd a tear.
this series seems to be getting a bit tired, although the subject is timely, the longer the author lives in the US, the less he seems in touch with Shanghai life
While ostensibly a murder mystery, this latest Inspector Chen novel is more a polemic concerning excessive pollution, economic growth at any cost and the political and social system in China today. Still, it is so well-written, filled with poetic references as an integral part of the whole, that it is a worthy addition to the series. Initially, Chen is invited to spend some vacation time at an exclusive resort for upper cadre (of which he isn’t one) by his mentor in Beijing who was scheduled to use a villa there. So, right off the bat, the author offers observations on how the upper layers of officials benefit, while the rest of the population doesn’t have such luxuries. Then Chen learns that the once pure waters of Tai Lake have become so polluted that fish are destroyed, the water can’t be drunk and even causes illness to inhabitants. The pollution is caused by industrial waste, unimpeded in the interest of profits and “progress.” No sooner does Chen arrive than the general manager of a large chemical company is found murdered and Chen becomes involved, without disclosing himself as a Chief Inspector, in an unofficial investigation. He learns about the pollution from a young female engineer, and works behind the façade of a local policeman, observing, questioning and deducting in typical Chen fashion, including a long T.S. Elliot-type poem about the lake. Other than the murder solution, the criticism of societal and economic conditions in China is anything but subtle. [I wonder if the novel will ever be translated into Chinese.] Here, it is recommended.
The inspector appears in other stories as well, but typically in Shanghai. This one takes place in a smaller city near a very polluted lake while the inspector is supposedly on vacation. The characters are interesting, the plot relevant, and I enjoyed the political commentary without it getting in the way of the plot. It was great to read a story in China and realize that people murder each other over the same things in every land.