Book review: Death of a Red Heroine

Death of a Red Heroine


Death of a Red Heroine
(Inspector Chen Cao #1)
by Qiu Xiaolong
Originally written in English
464 pages
6/1/2000, by Soho
Historical mystery

As you know, I have been reading a good amount of Japanese mysteries and literature in general, but very few Chinese authors. But this may change, thanks to my public library.
Every winter, they organize a reading challenge: you give them the list of the last four books you read, you tell them what you like and don’t like reading, and the staff picks a book for you to read.
And they chose Death of a Red Heroine for me. A Chinese historical mystery, a very clever choice!

Death of a Red Heroine is a long and slow book – 464 pages. But long and slow does not mean boring in this case.

During a fishing expedition, Inspector Chen discovers by chance the body of a dead woman. She ends up being Guan Hongying, a national model worker.
So why was she killed? Jealousy? Politics? And what was she doing on this canal, far from her lodgings?

That’s the plot in a nutshell with Chen and his team trying to solve the case.
Quite easy plot, but not so easy to solve for the cop.
Indeed, things get entangled due to the political background of the country.

And that’s where the book is so fascinating. The plot takes place one year after the Tiananmen Square massacre (April-June 1989) – the author actually came to the US after that event.
So China is in a period of transition. You can easily find side by side communism and capitalism (with even parallel markets), marxism and materialism.
For sure, there’s still focus on surveillance, lack of privacy, but the system of bribes and the corruption are strong enough in some cases to escape the rigorism of the older leaders of the Communist Party Central Committee.
And if you have the right connections, you can go places.

I sometimes think (and I’m probably wrong) I’m getting more familiar with Japanese society, but I really know nothing about Chinese society. I speak every week with Chinese students, and their daily life doesn’t sound very different from mine.
But here I felt like discovering a brand new world through this book.
There was so much: from street food to common lodgings, and of course famous landmarks in Shanghai, a city in full evolution, in Guangzhou, and Beijing – especially the National Library! It’s one of the largest in the world, and part of it is the former Imperial Peking Library!

The book has many more interests, as Chen is not your common inspector: on the side, he is also a published poet and a translator of British mysteries. So the book contains many references to Confucius and other classic Chinese writings, and lots of poems.

“In the words of the poem his father had taught him, a son’s return for his mother’s love is always inadequate, and so is one’s responsibility to the country:

Who says that the splendor of a grass blade returns
The love of the spring that forever returns?”

And there’s an even deeper layer, as Chen is an honest man, and he wants to follow justice and his own conscience.
Which can sometimes be a major obstacle to his advancement, possibly to his survival, when justice doesn’t seem to follow the general political lines of the Party.
Besides, in that milieu, a promotion could very well be a demotion.
So what can Chen do in these conditions? Will he be able to solve the case and keep his job?

Death of a Red Heroine is the first book in the Inspector Chen Cao series, and you can obviously see why I want to read the next book!
Thank you to my awesome public library!

VERDICT: Police investigation and poetry: a wonderful immersion into Chinese society and politics. 


Would you recommend any other novel on contemporary China?


11 thoughts on “Book review: Death of a Red Heroine

  1. Pingback: Friday Face Off: Death of a Red Heroine | Words And Peace

  2. I read this book in 2018 and that was after years of letting it sit on my shelves. I liked it very much and wanted to read more of the books (which I have on my shelves). My husband originally bought the books, and he did not like this one, I really cannot understand why. I thought it was a very good picture of China at that time.


  3. Fantastic that the library can choose such a suitable book for you. Great review. It is interesting to read about societies that we are not so familiar with. Very inspiring.


  4. Pingback: Sunday Post #76 – 01/29/2023 | Words And Peace

  5. Pingback: 2023: January wrap-up | Words And Peace

What do you think? Share your thoughts, and I will answer you. I will also visit your own blog

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.