What does a poet do when verse fails him? For Qiu Xiaolong, the solution lay in crime fiction. It was 1997 - just under a decade after the mainland writer and poet left to study literature in the US and two years since he had made his first visit back to his hometown of Shanghai. Qiu wanted to express his thoughts about the historic changes he observed in Chinese society, but poetry proved too personal. He needed a broader canvas, so over the next few years he set out using his adopted language of English to create a character and a novel reflecting a China in transition. The result was the first of the hugely popular Inspector Chen mysteries, which have now been translated into about 20 languages, with the latest novel set for release later this year. On a frosty Beijing night, about two dozen Inspector Chen fans turn up at a bookshop to meet the soft-spoken author. Although Qiu lives with his family in St Louis, Missouri, he returns regularly to the mainland to find fodder for his work. On the mainland, he is both insider and outsider, having spent the first 35 years of his life in Shanghai before leaving in 1988 on a scholarship to research T.S. Eliot at Washington University in St Louis. Qiu stayed on in the US after the Tiananmen crackdown and it wasn't until 1995 that he returned to see for himself the massive changes taking place on the mainland. Capitalism had been unleashed, materialism was taking hold and once sancrosanct benefits such as state-assigned housing were disappearing. It was hard to put into verse. 'I did write one poem - a long poem - for that purpose [to describe the change]. It's called Quixote in China,' he says. 'For me, poetry works best when I want to express my personal feelings or impressions. But when I tried to write about society at large I felt that that way of writing was not up to the purpose because you have to describe and sometimes you have dialogue among people. So, I thought I should try a different way of writing.' Qiu was already an avid reader of detective stories, especially the Martin Beck series by the Swedish husband-and-wife team of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, and decided the form afforded opportunities for showing the big picture. 'I like detective stories and read them long before I started writing one myself; otherwise I would never have tried to write in this particular form,' Qiu says. 'In [the Sjowall and Wahloo] detective stories there are so many things about society. Not just about the procedure ... Their emphasis is really more on society, more on the cops themselves as human beings, their personal lives. Their work opened something new to me so when I started writing maybe not consciously but at least subconsciously I would say they are an influence,' he says. When he first put pen to paper, Qiu decided the main character had to be something of an intellectual because he had to be able to look below the social surface. As the writing experiment took shape, the police officer became a convenient catalyst for the plot. 'A cop always raises questions; a cop always talks to all kinds of people and knocks on people's doors and investigates so to some extent he can look into things even deeper than ordinary people.' Chief Inspector Chen Cao, a burdened yet dedicated Shanghai police investigator with a sensitivity for food, women and poetry, made his fictional debut in Death of a Red Heroine. Over the course of six books, he has uncovered political, social and criminal intrigues behind the murders of a national model worker, a banned novelist, a former dancer and a senior police officer. Crime and community are intimately connected in Chen's world, and he returns this year in Don't Cry, Lake Tai. The seventh in the series, it is set against the backdrop of the environmental crisis on the mainland and will be released first in French in May. The latest novel will introduce a new character, Shanan, an environmental engineer, who crosses Chen's path 'in a most unexpected way', and show the inspector developing a more cynical edge, Qiu says. 'Some readers really want him to change more. One group, I would say they want him to marry someone or at least have an affair. He must have a woman. Otherwise he will have a nervous breakdown.' However, Qiu doesn't view the inspector entirely as an antihero. 'He's aware of his position in the system, aware of the need to survive in the system but at the same time he really wants to do a conscientious job,' he says. 'It's like an inner tension - to achieve a balance.' 'This inspector always tries to understand in what kind of historical situation, cultural situation, how the tragedy occurs, how a person can [become] a monster, a killer.' Monsters aren't born but shaped by what's happening in society, Qiu says, 'and I always think in China [there are] a lot of things you cannot examine in isolation'. For the writer, that means digging back further in time than the overt settings of his books. His first two novels were set in the early 1990s but time became more elastic in the others, with some giving a sense of present-day issues. Although none deal directly with the Cultural Revolution, its influence is never far away from latter-day narratives, surfacing as flashbacks or strands in the storyline. The period is intensely personal for Qiu. His father, who owned a small perfume factory before the communists came to power in 1949, became a target for mass criticism during the Cultural Revolution. He was labelled a capitalist, which brought harrowing consequences for the family, and Qiu says he still 'cannot get rid of the shadows so easily'. 'One thing I remember is the day - I think I put it into one of my books - my father had to undergo eye surgery in the hospital during the Cultural Revolution. Even in the hospital there were Red Guard organisations, so he had to write a confession. But he was blindfolded [for the operation] and could not write, so I had to go to the hospital to write for him. 'In the 60s he did not want to talk about his experiences before 1949 because he was worried what we might say. 'Ironically, because it was my job to write his confession speech, I learned about his early life. 'Also, even though he was blindfolded, he had to stand on a stage to face mass criticism. But he could hardly stand. I had to support him onto the stage and to stand by him like a human crutch. That was really traumatic.' Some of these experiences colour his collection of short stories based on his life in Shanghai, Years of Red Dust, which is being released in English this year. Originally serialised in the French newspaper Le Monde in 2008, the stories were later published in Chinese by Chinese University Press in Hong Kong. From his conversations with young mainlanders today, Qiu finds most have little interest in politics, although he says that may have to do with the disillusionment after the Cultural Revolution. 'But such a disaster for the nation should not be wiped away so easily just by [saying] we should be looking ahead rather than looking backwards. 'There's nothing wrong with that, but you cannot forget such things. You should really get lessons from it.' That's why he has a second volume of stories 'all interlinked in a new historicist framework' in the works. 'I try to find some meaning in what I remember,' Qiu says. 'Maybe a little bit like Proust.'