China-born author, Qiu Xiaolong, is the Anthony Award-winning creator of the Inspector Chen series, set in 1990s Shanghai. The series, which started in 2000 with Death of a Red Heroine, now has seven installments with the 2012 addition Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, and has been translated into twenty languages. The Washington Post dubbed Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, a “charming and quite political detective novel,” while Booklist declared it “Magnificent.” The Wall Street Journal called Xiaolong’s first installment in the series one of the five best political novels of all time, ranking it with Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Of The Mao Case, a reviewer for Booklist noted that it is “full, as always, of crisp detail and vivid atmospherics evoking contemporary Shanghai.” A Publishers Weekly contributor also had praise for the 2007 series addition, Red Mandarin Dress, pointing to its “first-rate characterizations and elegant portrait of a society attempting to move from rigid Maoist ideologies to an accommodation with capitalism.”
Reviewing the fourth book in the series, A Case of Two Cities, Publishers Weekly felt that Xiaolong “captures an honest detective’s struggle to be true to his professional ideals under a repressive regime.” The same reviewer concluded: “Chen stands in a class with Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian investigator, Arkady Renko, and P.D. James’s Scotland Yard inspector, Adam Dalgliesh.”
Xiaolong, it is a pleasure to have you with us on Scene of the Crime. Would you begin by describing your connection to Shanghai?.
I was born and brought up in Shanghai, where I studied and worked before I left for the United States in 1988. Now I live in the States, but I still go back to Shanghai quite frequently.
What things about Shanghai make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Shanghai is one of the Chinese cities that opened early to the West, with foreign concessions that mixed with other local areas for Shanghainese. In the twenties and thirties, Shanghai was called “the oriental Paris.” To some extent, you may say the city boasts of a combined culture of the east and west, like nowhere else in China. Inspector Chen, the main character, happens to be one who has come under the influence of both the traditional Chinese culture and modern western culture. So he fits into the unique setting.
Did you consciously set out to use Shanghai as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
Not at first. But in China, a lot of things are understandable only in the light of the cultural and political background, which cannot but turn into a character for the books.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
For me, it is natural to choose Shanghai as the location for my stories. A city I am most familiar with, and it is easy for me to come up with details. All the same, it’s no longer a city where I live, so it sort of gives me a perspective of distance. When some scenes are reexamined, they can be inspirational, imbued with new meanings.
How does Inspector Chen interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster?
Inspector Chen is a native of Shanghai. He has always lived in the city, but at the same time, it is a fast-changing city, and he is bothered by things happening there in spite his feeling for the city. With the ever-growing gap between the rich and the poor, the contrast of the new skyscrapers and old slums, his feelings for the city are mixed. It’s not just a matter of being passionate or cynical.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
The first three books of the Inspector Chen series have been translated into Chinese. But due to the censorship there, Shanghai is “shanghaied” in the Chinese translation. According to my Chinese editor, some official read the translation and said, “The story cannot have happened in Shanghai.” As a result, Shanghai is changed into “H city” (H in English), all the names of the streets and restaurants are also changed, lest that people could still recognize as a story of Shanghai. Ironically, the book reviews still describe the books as the stories of Shanghai. Maybe the censorship officials are too busy to read the reviews.
Of your Inspector Chen novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the setting? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
One of my favorite locations in the city of Shanghai is the Bund. A Loyal Character Dancer begins with a scene of the Bund. Read the first few pages of the book.
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
The two Swedish writers, Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, are my favorite authors in the mystery genre, but as for poetry, it is always T. S. Eliot.
What’s next for Chen?
Ironically, the location in the next book, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake, is Wuxi, where Inspector Chen is having his vacation. His partner Detective Yu remains in Shanghai, helping Chen investigate there. So at least part of the story still unfolds in Shanghai. (Note: The eighth book in the series, Enigma of China, is due out in May, 2013).
Thanks again, Xiaolong, for taking the time to talk with us on Scene of the Crime.
For more information on Qiu Xiaolong, see his author homepage.