Death of a Red Heroine

Death of a Red Heroine is a murder mystery set in Shanghai in 1990. There is a victim, a beautiful National Model Worker famous throughout China. There is a hardworking but troubled detective, Chief Inspector Chen Cao. And after a ponderous unfolding of clues and revelations, a suspect is apprehended and convicted.

But the who-done-it part of the story does not last long. Chen, and the book’s readers, know the murderer early on. The question is whether Chen can ever arrest him, and in this question lies the narrative tension of the novel. The problem is that the principle characters all represent political forces at odds in the People’s Republic of China. Chen is a rising young cadre, a product of the liberalizing policies of Deng Xioaping in the 1980’s. The victim is a proletariate hero whose relevance is fading in the economic transformation of China. The murderer is the son of a high-ranking Communist official, represents the vested interests of the old-guard cadres, and is seemingly untouchable.

Chen succeeds despite threats to his career, a confused emotional life, professional jealousy, and the bewildering change in public morality, and as he conducts his investigation readers see and hear how Chinese people view their society, recovering from the shock of Tienanman Square the year before and entering a market economy. Readers hear much of Chinese poetry and Western literary theory too, for Chen is a famous poet, caught between his love of traditional Chinese literature and modernist American literature.

Readers interested in China will like this tale for its engaging characterization, the cadence and realism of the dialogue, and its central theme, the potential conflict between Chen’s crusade to serve justice and the interest of the Communist party, an interest shrouded in political maneuvering.