"Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau is increasingly seen as a man on the rise - he is a poet with a popular new collection, a Party cadre recently appointed to the city congress, and a respected police inspector. But appearances can't always be trusted." "When a major new anti-corruption campaign is announced at the highest levels, Inspector Chen is summoned by an official of the Party to take the lead in a high-profile case, one in which the principal figure, Xing Xing, and his family have long since fled to the United States and beyond the reach of the Chinese government. But Xing left behind his organization, and Chen is charged with uncovering his connections and partners, and is authorized to take whatever means he has to to end the corruption ring. The assignment is potentially dangerous - a detective working on the case in Fujian was found dead in embarrassing and suspicious circumstances - and one that could have disastrous consequences for Chen, his friends, and his family." "In a twisting case that takes him from Shanghai all the way to the U.S., reuniting him with his colleague and counterpart from the U.S. Marshall's Service, Inspector Catherine Rhon, Chen finds himself at odds with hidden, powerful, and vicious enemies."--BOOK JACKET.
Inspector Chen is also gripped by the rules of ancient cultures.
Because of Victorian times, Europeans are not supposed to ask for something directly (they do not risk/or impose on somebody to answer "no"). So they never ask for a cup of coffee, they say "Your coffee is excellent" or "Is there any coffee left", and the hostess understands that the visitor wants more coffee. China has different rules, but it is as complicated, and as a result, inspector Chen is often told what to do in a very symbolic and obscure language (I think this is linked to a principle of deniability). It amuses me. I loved A case of two cities.
I have not read the previous three novels featuring this character and there were a couple of times when it felt like I was missing out on some crucial information, but for the most part it was possible to read this book as a standalone novel. For someone who reads crime fiction as much for they way it offers me a window into other places and cultures as for the mysteries A CASE OF TWO CITIES has a lot to offer. Of most interest for me was the small details of life in modern China where a kind of state sponsored capitalism has become the dominant economic force. As Qiu Xiaolong was born in China before moving to the US as an adult I have to assume that this depiction is as authentic as it seemed when reading it and I found this aspect of the book genuinely absorbing. When the book’s action moves to America it is equally interesting seeing a more familiar setting through the eyes of people who are not used to it.
I also enjoyed meeting Chen and seeing him in action. He faces some of the same challenges as fictional police everywhere but having to combine his policing duties with a role as a leading Party cadre adds a layer of complexity and the fact this is topped off with being a recognised poet makes him unique amongst fictional sleuths. His working and personal lives both require a very delicate balancing act between all of these priorities and and this can add both danger and sadness given that he is not always free to do what his heart might want. There are a lot of minor characters in the book and I did find this a bit overwhelming for keeping the story straight in my head plus it meant that none of the other characters was really fleshed out in any depth. His trusted offsider and his wife are probably the only two I’ll be able to remember for any length of time.
Narratively I did find myself getting lost a little at times. Apologies to all the poets out there but the liberal inclusion of poetry and a kind of long-form homage to T.S.Eliot detracted rather than added to the book for me. I’ve never really liked this kind of thing (I do rather like poetry, I just prefer it to be in a separate universe to prose) and here I found it particularly annoying as I was having trouble enough keeping track of all the unfamiliar names and places. But it was probably the style of investigation that made the story harder than normal to follow. I don’t know if was because this case involved such a politically sensitive issue or if this is how Chen’s cases always play out but nothing every really moves in a straight forward direction: every tiny bit of progression has to come via an oblique angle that, at times, isn’t even recognisable as investigative work.
Overall though I really enjoyed A CASE OF TWO CITIES, even if I might have missed a few nuances of the plot and can heartily recommend it to those who like to travel virtually via their crime fiction. The setting, engaging protagonist and understated suspense all make for a very satisfying reading experience.
Politics is always central to the Inspector Chen novels. This one leans more toward espionage than to crime fiction. It's not particularly light reading, either. The complex plot and ambiguous dialogue require the reader's careful attention. I made the mistake of reading this one when I had a lot of distractions. Perhaps that's why I didn't enjoy it as well as the other books I've read in the series. When I'm ready to read the next one, I'll have to make sure I pick a time with fewer distractions.