Monday, August 02, 2010

Reflections: Mysteries Set in China

Last night's visit here by Eliot Pattison focused on his colonial American "Bone Rattler" series, but he is probably better known as the author of the Inspector Shan (pronounced "sh-ah-n") series, set in Chinese-occupied Tibet and occasionally in Beijing. Pattison gave a cover blurb to Lisa Brackmann for her current best-seller, Rock Paper Tiger, which he enjoyed very much. Pattison's "justice fiction" deals almost entirely with mid-life adults and older ones, seekers and teachers. Brackmann's is set in the gaming world of younger adults. And I've been thinking about other mysteries that connect with China.

Probably the earliest ones I read were Robert Van Gulik's "Judge Dee" mysteries. I didn't realize until this afternoon that these are from ancient Chinese tradition -- something I found out in an article by Professor George Demko that outlines English-language Chinese mysteries through 1990:

Also on our shelves here, of course, are the mysteries by Qiu Xiaolong, starting with A Loyal Character Dancer, which features teamwork between Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau and Inspector Catherin Rohn of the U.S. Marshals, trying to solve a missing persons case. This one gives good insight into modern urban life in China, as well as peering into the relationship of the triads and the Chinese government.

As a glance at a world map makes immediately clear, China is made up of many formerly autonomous nation-states, and a wide range of climates, too. Helpful to me in shattering some preconceptions about "the Chinese" who arrived in America are the New York City Chinatown novels by Henry Chang -- who sorts out family, group, and regional affiliations among the arrivals. New to my tongue and thinking are words/regions like Fukien. Chang outlines how different groups have immigrated during different periods, as he takes us into the investigative world of Detective Jack Yu. (Note that Chang's web site is mostly out of date, but it is now announcing the final book of his dark and complex Chinatown Trilogy, Red Jade, coming out this fall.)

That takes me to the Lydia Chin mysteries by S. J. Rozan -- who is not Chinese herself but clearly knows the Chinatown world, as well as investigative process. Her most recent, The Shanghai Moon, delighted me with its twists and finale.

And for one more very different direction, there's Deep Creek by Dana Hand -- probing the anti-Chinese sentiments of America in 1887, through the struggles of Idaho lawman Joe Vincent to solve the murder of more than thirty Chinese workers. Vincent's connections with Chinese investigator Lee Loi and mountain guide Grace Sundown yield a page-turner with an intensity that can be surprising in what appears at first glance to be a historical novel, but turns out to be an artfully crafted crime and justice narrative.

As some of us were saying last night, mysteries set in other landscapes give us a swift way to grasp not just the differences of land and language, but also the otherwise indescribable differences in global culture. For a land as large and varied as China, I'm looking forward to reading more of these books with continued variety. If I never get there in person, at least I'll have an updated and deepened sense of what I'm missing.

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