A country may be democratic or authoritarian, but the regime will always maintain influence, covert at least, on police, especially when investigations may lead towards its own functionaries or those closely associated with it. Any honest and conscientious police officer who thinks their work is an end in itself will soon be disabused of their notions, and may not only be removed, but face other threats too.
A powerless policeman in a changing, complex China?
Qiu Xiaolong's Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police is the latest to face this situation.
As head of its Special Case Squad, he has diligently but with discretion, investigated a several sensitive matters, including those which could have embarrassed the ruling Communist Party, pleasing senior leaders as well as managing to ensure justice of sorts. But suddenly, he is removed from his police post and instead made director of the "Shanghai Legal Reform Committee", a high-sounding title for a powerless and mainly meaningless job.
Mulling over what has led to his shifting out, he decides to take some time out and tend to his father's grave in the nearby town of Suzhou. On his way back, Chen is caught in the open in a rainstorm and a young woman, driving past, comes to his help. As he, not keen to reveal his real identity, happens to blurt out he is a private investigator, she seeks to hire him to keep tabs on a woman in Shanghai and an influential man she is seeing. He tries his best to sidestep her but finally agrees to consider it.
Back in Shanghai, he decides to try to find out what his new work entails but his decision to meet a senior official and discuss various current issues leads to unexpected consequences for him.
The same night, Chen faces an attempt to force him into a compromising position and discredit him, and subsequently threats to his life. Meanwhile his close associates, like former assistant Yu Guangming, who was named his successor, are also targeted, and his office and mother's home ransacked. And then his "client" in Suzhou is murdered as well as a policeman who has crucial information.
What crime implicating high-up officials is Chen not meant to investigate and who is out to get him? Who can he trust or seek help from? And what does the case of a foreigner found dead in mysterious circumstances have to do with all of this? These questions form the crux and their answers are slowly revealed in this ninth installment of the series, which besides being an engrossing mystery, offers an unparalleled look into the complexities and paradoxes of today's China.
While the plot will seem familiar to anyone who follows China regularly, the Bo Xilai case in particular, what sets Qiu's work apart is the ambiance of China he evokes, be it the politics and social habits of the ruling class, including their escapades, the public debates this engenders - that description of the argument in the bus in the starting is matchless, the environmental costs of unrestrained economic growth, especially its effect on food items, the cuisine, poetry and disappearing facets of culture, especially the Suzhou opera form (which is a fairly regular motif in several of the earlier works).
Those familiar with the earlier works will find some of the "old friends" back and in more meaty roles - Yu's father, the Old Hunter, Yu's wife Peiqin, Chen's former 'little secretary' White Cloud, a journalist, a hacker and others, while tracing the protagonist's course from someone who is concerned about the problems of his country to a deeper dejection and questioning whether what he does will make any difference.
But poet, literary translator, academician, and, of course, crime novelist Qiu (1953), who went to the US in 1988 to write a book on T S Eliot, but had to stay back as media reports about his fund-raising for Chinese students could have caused problems back home in the wake of Tiananmen Square and the consequent crackdown, does not restrict himself to his homeland to raise some wider concerns.
The rapacity of the the political class and the use of old nationalistic slogans to divert attention from contemporary problems will strike a particular chord!