Chen, recently appointed director of his small unit on the Shanghai police, begins his police work with only a few sketchy clues about the death of Guan – a well-known figure whose image and personality had been widely used in propaganda by the Communist regime. The year is 1990, and the events at Tiananmen Square are vividly remembered by all the participants, as are many earlier repressions and political upheavals in China. Political men are trying to make a career in new circumstances, free market economics are competing with old Communist control, and everyone looks over his shoulder in fear.
We meet Chen at his housewarming party for his new apartment – at the end of the party, he receives the phone call informing him of the murder he will investigate throughout the novel. Through describing this party, the author – writing in English for a western audience – puts us readers on notice that we haven’t learned everything about Chinese food by eating in Chinese restaurants. And by implication, that we have much to learn about a detective in Shanghai in an era of complex political maneuvering.
Chen’s guest, an old friend nicknamed “Overseas Chinese” Lu, is bringing a contribution to the banquet: a dish called Beggar’s Chicken cooked with “nothing but Yellow Mountains pine needles.” With it, Chen prepares to serve iced beer to his guests. Another guest brings a huge pine nut cake. The details of the food accompany a description of the apartment, small and poor to a Western reader, a luxury to residents of China. And at the end of the evening, Lu asks Chen to back him in financing a free-enterprise endeavor: he’s starting a restaurant. As it’s a tightly plotted book, Lu and his restaurant will play a role in the solution of the murder and conviction of the perp – but we are only on page 9.
And even before this, the two men who discovered the victim’s body had been fishing in a remote waterway. Alas, they had to report their grizzly find. So they missed the delicious soup they had imagined making from their freshly-caught fish. Food! A great device!
As he relentlessly pursues his investigation, Chen often stops for a meal. His deputy Li and Li's wife give him a special crab banquet. He stops in small locations. The readers learn of personal relationships, economic realities, and the challenges of police work through some of these meals. And as in so many police procedurals, even the contents of the victim's stomach -- her last meal -- is an important clue leading to her murderer.
The most remarkable and exotic such meal occurs during his risky trip to Guangzhou to find a key witness. Due to its proximity to Hong Kong, Guangzhou was much more westernized than Chen’s native Shanghai, and had become very expensive and in Communist terms corrupt. When he fails to get the assistance of the local police, Chen accepts help from a rich businessman named Ouyang, who cultivates Chen’s acquaintance because in addition to being a policeman, Chen is a successful poet. (Poetry is discussed as much as food in creating atmosphere for this unusual book.)
Ouyang treats Chen to dinner in a luxury restaurant run by a private entrepreneur. In contrast, on his police budget plus what he can afford out-of-pocket, Chen can hardly eat at street stalls in this go-go city. Here are some highlights from the description of the meal. You can see how this sets the exotic atmosphere:
“A big coal-burning stove and two small ones comprised the open kitchen. Its only sign was a red paper lantern….Beneath it were live eels, frogs, clams, and fish squirming and swimming in water-filled wooden basins and buckets. There was also an impressive glass cage with several snakes of various sizes and shapes. Customers could choose, and have their choice cooked in a specified way.
“A middle-aged woman was peeling a water snake by the cage. With its head chopped off, the snake was still twitching in a wooden basin, but in a couple of minutes, a coil of white meat would be steamed in a brown earthware pot. …
“In Guangzhou, Chen had heard, there was nothing with four legs that people had not found a way to turn into a delicacy. And he was witnessing such a miracle: Omelet with river clams, meatballs of four happiness, fried rice field eel, peeled shrimp in tomato containers, eight-treasure rice, shark’s fin soup, a whole turtle with brown sauce, and bean curd stuffed with crabmeat.
“’Just a few simple dishes, sidestreet cooking,’ Ouyang said, raising his chopsticks, and shaking his head in apology.” (pages 261-262)
So you see. It’s not Joe Leaphorn’s wife’s Indian style stew. It’s not the savory offerings of Madame Maigret. It’s not the mannered Boston food of Robert Parker’s Spenser. An entirely special range of culinary details animate this very readable and enjoyable book. These details heighten the suspense, never detracting from the building tension over the detective’s case. The examples I’ve given – and many others -- help us understand the social conflicts and political atmosphere created by the author.