A CASE OF TWO CITIES opens with seemingly unrelated incidents: the death in somewhat scandalous circumstances of a long serving policeman and Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau being put in charge of an investigation into high-level corruption. Chen’s tactics are, of necessity, circuitous but he and the people he chooses to seek help from prove to be in danger. Even when he is appointed at the last minute to head a delegation of Chinese writers on a tour to the USA he is not beyond the reach of those with empires to protect.
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.
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Another book down from my pre 2017 TBR pile, still 16 to go though to meet my goal for the year. This one had sat on the pile for an embarrassing 7 years 4 months!
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Publisher This edition Sceptre, 2007
Length 382 pages
Book Series #4 in the Inspector Chen series
Source of review copy I bought it