Rhyme and reason: how a crime writer found poetic justice

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am


Shanghai-born crime writer and poet Qiu Xiaolong created the best-selling Inspector Chen detective series. Qiu, 59, won the Anthony Award for best new novel in 2001 with Death of a Red Heroine, which was declared one of the five best political novels of all time by The Wall Street Journal. Qiu spoke to Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore after his seventh Inspector Chen novel, Don't Cry, Tai Lake, was published this month.

You write in English. Why?

I used to write in Chinese and I still write a little - poetry, some short articles. I started writing in English in 1989 because at that time it was not possible for me to publish in Chinese. I had no choice. And in one sense it's much freer for me to write in English.

While you live in St Louis in America, your novels are set in contemporary China. Do you consider yourself an insider or outsider in China today?

I went to the US at the end of 1988 as a foundation fellow. My plan was to stay there for one year to do some research. But the next year the Tiananmen tragedy happened. The first time I came back was in 1995 or '96. On the one hand I want to provide a realistic picture of China to Western readers. [But] to some extent, I'm an outsider in China now because I no longer live there. I want to portray China from this kind of bubble perspective.

Poet-policeman Inspector Chen fights injustice, corruption and crime within the Chinese system. Is he based on you?

Chen is not based on me. I have never been a [Communist Party] member [like Chen is]. But like Chen I have a passion for poetry, a passion for good food. When I decided to stay in the US in 1989 it was not a decision I embraced. Sometimes I couldn't help imagining what I could have done if I had stayed in China. My imagination went into the creation of the inspector.

Don't Cry, Tai Lake is set in Wuxi, home to the famed beauty spot Tai Lake. In 2007 Wuxi was the centre of an environmental crisis and subsequent government cover-up when the lake was polluted by local industries, poisoning the drinking water for millions of people. What brought you to the story?

The book came to me. I was in Wuxi one year after the crisis - I had heard and read about the problem, but I did not go there for that purpose. It's just that it's so close to Shanghai and my parents used to take me there as a child. And I was shocked because the water still stank and was covered with green algae. I happened to find an activist who got into trouble [with the authorities] because of his efforts in [publicising] the crisis and that comes into the book as well.

Is it important for Chinese authors to write about the country's fast-deteriorating environment?

I really feel a Chinese writer, or any writer, should write about the environment. This is a topic that for some reason few Chinese writers want to touch on. For many years the Chinese government has been just striving [to build up] the GDP - what kind of disaster it has brought about and what kind of disaster it can bring in the future... I saw horrible pictures of people affected, people sick [and the lake] covered with this green, grimy mess.

In 2010 you published Years of Red Dust: Stories of Shanghai, a series of short stories set in Red Dust Lane, the longtang, or alleyway, where you grew up. How has the city changed?

I cannot believe the change. It's so dramatic. Nowadays when I come back to Shanghai I feel like a country bumpkin. Writing the inspector books is my way of coming to terms with these changes ... I'm trying to make sense of them myself.

Years of Red Dust records daily life in the longtang and Shanghai's unique Shikumen-style housing, the majority of which have now been demolished. Do you feel an obligation to record a way of life that is fast disappearing?

Yes, definitely. It's not just the disappearance of all the lanes. For me it's more than that. It's the traditional values, the way of living, the unique character of the city that is lost. In the old days people would sit out in front of their houses in the lane talking, joking, telling stories. But nowadays you don't see it that much with the new housing. The community spirit is gone. Each and everyone is just for him or herself. I love this city really more than anywhere else, but it's no longer the city I remember.

What does your old neighbourhood look like today?

The people who are still living in Red Dust Lane [which remains standing] are mostly the people left out by the [economic] reforms. They still live in conditions using chamber pots and coal stoves. What about those people? Nowadays the standard in society seems to be success and money alone.

Your Inspector Chen novels contain a lot of poetry. Do you consider yourself a poet first, or novelist?

Right now, I spend more time writing novels, but next month I have a poetry collection coming out in the US in collaboration with a photographer, Howard French. It is called Disappearing Shanghai. I love poetry. I also want poetry to reach a larger audience. In a detective story more people will read the poems than if it is just published in a poetry collection. Now, I also feel I could have done something more in poetry. Regrets? You can say that.

Finally, what are your plans for the future?

It's my hope and my ambition to write a history from 1949 all the way to the present. One story a year.