There’s a murder, of course there is. And it’s not a straightforward one – a celebrity chef has seemingly killed her kitchen / personal assistant in a fit of jealous rage. The circumstances make no sense to seasoned Inspector Chen. He’s been sidelined into a make-work role, with no responsibility but a superficial sheen suitable for a police investigator of his standing. Chen has some friends in the right places, but his fate may be too tightly bound to his benefactors’ in the long run. In the meanwhile, he can’t help asking questions in pertinent places, especially when another murder occurs – also linked to the chef’s final dinner party.
The mystery in the Inspector Chen series has long played second fiddle to the political machinations, to the manoeuvring and manipulation within a powerful agency of state. And that state appears to be in a permanent state of flux; rapidly evolving into the leading global superpower. We know that the China depicted in these novels is driven, dynamic and productive, but it also carries the emotional baggage and societal discord of a century of unresolved conflicts and personal catastrophes.
And that’s why these stories are so fascinating. The author avoids the common western conceit that the PCR is governed by a cruelly despotic regime, aggressive in its acquisition of military, technological and geographic territory. Chen moves in a complex world of tangled loyalties, where commercial interests, political power and bureaucratic corruption can obscure the truth – or reveal a killer.
The story unfolds through suggestion and insinuation. Chen devotes as much time to his semi-retirement project – reinventing the Chinese historical mystery, no less – as he does to insightful interviews with unwilling witnesses. His investigation involves the type of artful manipulation that might make Machiavelli blush. He has a new sidekick, a secretary who interprets her role with considerable latitude, and their oblique conversations are quietly delicious.
This is a true detective adventure, in which Chen makes considered deductions after observing the suspects and considering the consequences of each action. It’s also a considered commentary on contemporary Chinese society. And it’s a subtle love story, too.
Is this the right place to start a relationship with Inspector Chen? Definitely not. It’s oblique and challenging, even if you’re already acquainted with the characters through the previous 10 or so novels. Is this a richly rewarding experience for long-time admirers of the series? Definitely yes. As ever, Qiu Xiaolong achieves a level of cross-cultural exchange found only in the very best literary fiction.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Inspector Chen and the Private Kitchen Murder by Qiu Xiaolong is available at Amazon
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