A Case of Two Cities

When my library book group recently discussed A Case of Two Cities by Qiu Xiaolong, some participants were surprised that, even though the book was billed as a mystery novel, it offered virtually nothing in the way of thrills or suspense.  The main character, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau, doesn’t actually corner a culprit; and although he’s attracted to a beautiful American colleague, he doesn’t wind up getting her into the sack.

So just what is the appeal of the Inspector Chen series?  (This one is his fourth adventure, published in 2006, and more have followed.)  The author was born in Shanghai and was educated both in China and the United States, where he now lives.  He is a poet as well as a novelist, and so is his detective protagonist.  In fact, the book is liberally laced with poetry, both quotes from famous Chinese works as well as lines composed by Chen, and this adds an unusual quality to the story, since the poetry is meant to comment on the action that is occurring.  The book club members liked the inclusion of the poetry and the verse itself, but found it a trifle odd.  Also puzzling was the plotting, which begins with several murders in China and then moves to a visit to the United States, with Chen heading up a delegation of Chinese writers attending meetings in both Los Angeles and St. Louis.  Another murder occurs, and it appears the victim may have been mistaken for Chen, who is continuing his investigation of a corrupt Chinese businessman while coordinating the delegation meetings.

What is particularly interesting about the novel is the portrait of Chen, who yearns to develop his gift for poetry and to make a connection with the tantalizing Catherine, but feels bound by his involvement in the Party and his obligations to his elderly mother, back in China.  At all times he is courteous and courtly, but one senses that underneath his civil exterior is a passionate nature that desperately longs to break free.  Chen had previously encountered Catherine in an earlier case they’d worked on together, and he’d never gotten over the experience.

One learns much about Chinese politics, culture and cuisine from reading the book, and one of the group members who has a background in Asian students said all of the details were completely accurate.  Our group reads at least one mystery a year, and I chose this one because of its portrayal of contemporary China, as well as the author’s distinguished reputation (he’s received the Anthony Award and was a finalist for the Edgar Award).  A Case of Two Cities might not be everyone’s cup of oolong, but it goes down easily and leaves a pleasant aftertaste.

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

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