Qiu Xiaolong's English-language gritty detective novels, set on the streets of Shanghai, are gaining a faithful following, as much for their whodunit storylines as for their portrait of China in transition.
Qiu's hero, the poetry-loving Chief Inspector Chen, pounds the pavement as he pursues murderers, triad members and corrupt officials.
Qiu is an accidental writer of thrillers. He originally made a name for himself translating T.S. Eliot's poetry and William Faulkner's novels. When he started writing his first Inspector Chen book, he didn't even realize he was writing a mystery until he'd finished.
"I meant to write about a book about modern or contemporary China, in which people are having hard time adjusting themselves to the change," he says.
Qiu still views China through the tumultuous prism of the decadelong Cultural Revolution. His talent for writing first emerged then, when he penned his father's self-criticism, a form of penance demanded by the radicals at the time. His father had owned a business and was punished as a capitalist or in the parlance of the day, a "black" counter-revolutionary occupation. The contrast with today's money-hungry China, where successful businesspeople are revered, inspired his third book, When Red Is Black.
"Now business owners are no longer something black, no longer something worth being condemned," Qiu says. "So the ideological system, at least in that aspect, has been turned upside down. I cannot help thinking if my father were alive, what he would have thought, 'I have suffered all this for nothing,' or 'History is just like a joke, right?'"
The human cost of China's changing political winds is a theme that runs through his books. Qiu writes about China from St. Louis, where he has lived for 18 years, although he makes regular trips back to Shanghai. The distance, he says, gives him perspective on the country's changes. It also gives him more freedom to write about the downsides of reform; his books highlight the widening gap between rich and poor, the rampant materialism unaccompanied by ethical standards, and corruption inside the Communist Party.