Review #15: Becoming Inspector Chen

We meet again, Inspector Chen, you frustrating enigma.

When Qiu Xiaolong’s first Inspector Chen book was released I was beside myself with excitement. It promised everything that a young man fascinated by China, prone to pretentiousness, and steeped in British TV crime dramas could possibly want! Crime mystery, set in China, loaded with Chinese poetry and philosophy – what a perfect book. But oh, what a shame. Not a full on disappointment, but I stuck with the Inspector Chen books up until Red Mandarin Dress, at which point I admitted defeat, enthusiasm sapped.

But Inspector Chen is back in Becoming Inspector Chen, the 11th book (12 if you count a short story collection), and having started this blog I promised myself I would not be discriminating in what I read – and besides, this has an intriguing premise, with a focus (as the title suggests) on Chen’s early years during the Cultural Revolution. I was interested again – it was time to return to Red Dust Lane.

book cover of Becoming Inspector Chen

In my last post I rambled on about how the protagonist of Death Notice doesn’t fit the genre template of Western crime fiction. Inspector Chen, on the other hand, definitely does, even if the pensive style and distinctively modern Chinese setting is very different (Qiu, I should add, writes in English and has lived in the US since the 1980s). Deep into the novel series now, Chen Cao is now Chief Inspector Chen but his post is precarious following his last case (presumably the previous novel, which I haven’t read). He is having bad dreams and reflecting on his early career, while dealing with a new case.

Morse has his opera, Holmes his pipe, Marlowe his liquor. Well Inspector Chen has his poetry. And then some. The most distinctive thing about the Inspector Chen books is that Chen is a poet, and the books are a rich stock of poetic and literary references. It didn’t take long into Becoming Inspector Chen for me to be reminded that this was a reason why I gave up on the series, which felt deeply disappointing for a lover of Chinese literature. But these references come so thick and fast – there are few pages without at least one reference – that it starts to distract from the narrative, moves beyond an affectation and almost becomes self-parody.

I love Chinese poetry – the Tang poets were, along with Hong Lou Meng, the trigger for me falling in love with Chinese literature. And some of the allusions here work wonderfully and sent me right back to my bookshelves to find the original. But many of them feel gratuitous, a feeling not helped by the enormous and eclectic range of literary styles (from the Classic of the Mountain and the Seas to Xu Zhimo via Wang Yangming, not to mention Western works from TS Eliot to Martin Beck mysteries), some of the creaking ways they are introduced (‘Time and tide wait for no woman, like in a half-forgotten Tang dynasty poem’), and the fact that characters other than Chen also sometimes appear to think in poetic references. Qiu somehow doesn’t seem to engage deeply with many of them, just using them to support his descriptions or to indicate Chen’s thoughts. I think that fewer references more tightly woven into the narrative would be more effective and more satisfying to read.

So Chen started writing and translating poems, and before long he became known for his modernist style in a small circle. But just as in a Song dynasty poem written by Xin Qiji – ‘Again, the spring leaves / so soon, unable to sustain / the wind and rain any longer’ – the real splendour of the spring lasts only for a short period of time.

In existentialism, self-realisation comes through making one’s choices and taking the consequences. In China, however, it was not up to him to make the choices. On the contrary, the choices were pushed onto him

It doesn’t help that Qiu has made two other stylistic choices that really grate with my personal preferences as a reader. Firstly, as well as his poetry Chen is a serious gourmand with a particular taste for unusual delicacies. In this book, at least, his tastes form part of a mystery (a corpse is found with both caviar and shark fin soup in his gut), but as a character trait it feels both superfluous (we already know he’s cultivated) and alienating. Secondly, Qiu opens several of the chapters with dream sequences. I’m a firm believer that dream sequences have no place in novels: they’re cumbersome to read; they are so obviously artificial it takes you out of the story; they are about as tedious as, well, someone describing their dreams to you; and readers tend to skip them anyway (Elmore Leonard’s Rule no 10). It’s no different here.

And a final reminder of why I gave up on the Chen series is the central mystery itself. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned it yet. In all the Chen books I’ve read the crime plots often have a nice hook (here the corpse with a gourmet fusion in its stomach, who doesn’t arrive until halfway through the book, as well as a single ‘like’ emoji posted next to a poem seeming to incriminate Chen politically) but the unravelling and solution tends to be talky and forgettable. Overall I can never quite shake the feeling that Qiu would rather be writing academic non-fiction, but he has a very good way with words and an agent who persuaded him that crime fiction is the most commercial part of the market. But the fact that Qiu is now 11 books into the series implies that he’s doing something right in that market.

I’m not entirely down on Becoming Inspector Chen. There are lots of enjoyable moments in reading it. Qiu’s ‘sights and smells’ of Shanghai and Beijing are vivid, and constructed far more effortlessly than the characters. Some of the descriptions of place and still images that he conjures are beautifully memorable. The most interesting parts of the book are the recollections of young Chen which, as the title implies, take us to who Chen is now. The sequences set in the Cultural Revolution in particular are some of the best I’ve read in fiction. But I wanted to like it so much more than I did. Even in the flashbacks it can be self-indulgent (it’s hard to care about Chen’s student essays about the tension between TS Eliot’s impersonal theory and personal writing) and pretentious (Chen solves the mystery by repeatedly considering a leitmotif from The Unbearable Lightness of Being – in German, of course).

I admire that it is thoughtful, different and often beautiful, but I’m just disappointed that I found another Inspector Chen book just, well, a bit boring.

Thank you to Severn House for the ARC. Becoming Inspector Chen is published on 2 March 2021

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