Qiu Xiaolong’s Shanghai is a city mired in corruption. In an age when “being rich” means “being glorious”, the values of the cultural revolution have been all but forgotten. Greed is good, and pleasure palaces of vice and excess teem with politicians, police officers and entrepreneurs.
A Case of Two Cities paints a depressing view of modern China in a narrative so pretentious that it heaves under its own weight. Its central character, Inspector Chen Cao, is not only a celebrated scourge of crime, but also a poet. The writing ranges from purple noir (a girl sobs “like a broken electronic flute”) to all-out poetic abstraction. In the prologue, for example, a prostitute wakes to find a dead detective beside her. She doesn’t just scream, but invokes the “18th level down in hell” and exclaims: “Old Third, I want to cut your damned bird to a thousand pieces. A small sip, like a teardrop.”
Xiaolong reminds us of the socio-economic and political contexts that frame the story and explains in detail the movement from “the state economy to the market economy”, including those “left out of the materialistic transition of the city” at the fringes of the action. But the potentially exciting plot line – full of murder and intrigue, and set in both China and the US – is needlessly sacrificed.