Could it really be nine years since I interviewed Qiu Xiaolong, the author of the Chief Inspector Chen series? He was an easy man to talk to, warm and forthcoming, and I remember our conversation clearly, including details that never made it into my article – for example, how German publishers often hire actors to perform (i.e. read) at book launches, and that the actor who usually reads Qiu’s work is actually known for his role as a detective on German television.
Back in 2007, I was given the first Chen mystery to read as prep for the interview. I enjoyed the book, but never got round to reading the other titles in the series (there are nine in total). This year I acquired e-copies of books two to six. I have now read two to five, and will be starting on six shortly.
I mentioned in my interview with Qiu that Chief Inspector Chen has the rather ridiculous habit of quoting from Chinese classics, especially poetry. Reading four books in quick succession, the habit started to grate on my nerves.
Chen recites poetry at the slightest provocation: pleasing scenery, the presence of a beautiful woman, a dead body, traffic jam, delicious meal, fragrant tea leaves – anything and everything sets him off. While I know Chief Inspectors need an outlet, and it’s nothing new for fictional cops to have a literary or artistic bent, I feel Chen (or rather, Qiu) overdoes it somewhat.
I’m afraid I took to skipping some of Chen’s philosophical interior monologues and also his reflections on certain poems. This didn’t affect my understanding of the storylines so I think they are there merely to emphasise Qiu’s eccentricities. Indeed, they might be the highlight of the series for some.
Personally, I like Qiu’s books for their insights on the city of Shanghai, the examination of Chinese history, politics and culture, and the detailed description of Shanghainese cuisine. I am too squeamish to do more than skim over some of the food and dishes mentioned – it’s China so you get the idea, but in Red Mandarin Dress I was very grateful to Qiu for making Chen turn down monkey’s brain during a banquet.
I also like reading about Chen’s partner, Detective Yu and his wife, Peixin, a lover of classics who is an accountant at two restaurants and re-reads The Dream of the Red Chamber in her free time. I adore how devoted they are to each other and their son, and I find their struggles to survive and thrive in modern-day communist China far more interesting than Chen’s existential crises.
Chief Inspector Chen Mysteries: