I’m pleased to find the local library in Singapore has some of Qiu Xiaolong’s detective novels, which feature a Chief Inspector of Police, Chen, who also happens to be a poet and English major. The novels are in translation (naturally, for me to read them); they take place in Shanghai in the 1990s, and have been appearing over the last 5-8 years in English.
I was remarking to my spouse yesterday that I no longer read detective novels for the plot; I read them for style, local information, attractive characters, and other stuff. (So I’ve turned into one of those people who reads the first few chapters and then read the ending, to see if it’s worth reading the bits in the middle – shame on me.) And the English-language style of Qiu’s novels is not all that great, but his books have lots of stuff that make them fun for me to read. I don’t know how much is interesting to Chinese people, but here’s my list of compelling categories:
Daily life for non-wealthy Shanghainese;
Descriptions of specifically Chinese occupations – hot-water seller, triad member, Party cadre, member of Writers’ Associations, police;
Intersection of government policy and propaganda with actual life (i.e., education, housing, corruption);
System of favors offered and returned, including the worth of various brands of cigarettes;
Retold history of China since 1949: life as a Red Guard, Cultural Revolution, Mao worship, Mao’s wives, Gang of Four, etc.;
Quotations of classical Chinese poetry;
Snippets of Chinese history, and how they morph into popular adages and attitudes – Cao Cao’s tomb-building (!), rules of the imperial household;
FOOD: from the crummiest leftover cold rice to reconstituted imperial banquets with braised camel’s paws (ew).
There’s also a combination of melancholy lost love, anxiety over Confucian values, and kung fu.
In short, these books have got everything! I don’t know how they appeal to Chinese readers, but they’re so full of lucidly-explained Chinese culture, that I like them quite a lot. I have found that, not having been brought up with Chinese culture, a lot of it is difficult to access unless I pester Mei with questions for hours. But reading Qiu Xiaolong works well, too!
BTW, Qiu has published collections of his English translations of Tang poetry as well.