Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. To say the least, modern Beijing is a complex society. It’s a fusion of ancient traditions, communist principles, and a little Western influence, too. It’s a rich and fascinating culture, so it’s little wonder that it has so much appeal as a context for a crime novel. Let’s take a look at that context today, and turn the spotlight on Diane Wei Liang’s The Eye of Jade.
After a short-lived career at the Ministry for Public Security, Mei Wang has decided to set up her own private investigation business. It’s a little tricky because, technically, private detectives are not legal in China. Still, she’s hung out her shingle, and hired a young man named Gupin as her assistant (because no-one is taken seriously without an underling to answer the telephone, run errands, and so on).
One day, an old family friend, Chen Jitian ‘Uncle Chen’ pays Mei a visit. He wants her to investigate the disappearance of a rare Han Dynasty jade seal that went missing from the Luoyang Museum during the Cultural Revolution. He’s afraid that if it isn’t found, it’ll disappear from China and end up on the world black market. Mei’s a little reluctant; after all, it’s quite a tricky task to look for a national treasure like that without attracting unwelcome attention. But she agrees to do what she can.
Mei and Gupin begin by trying to establish who would have the connections and the opportunity to acquire the jade, transport it (possibly out of the country) and find a market for it. As you can imagine, the trail leads to some very dangerous places. And, after a violent death, Mei discovers that it also leads to some very high places.
In the meantime, Mei is facing a major challenge at home. Her mother has had a stroke, and now Mei, her sister Lu, and their aunt must do their best to co-ordinate visits, care and so on. Her recovery isn’t guaranteed, either, so there’s also the very upsetting prospect of life without her. As the case goes on, Mei learns that the root of it all is much closer to home than she’d thought. And in the end, she has to face some unsettling truths about her family.
This is a PI novel. So, Mei doesn’t have access to the same resources as the police do. Instead, she taps her own network of connections, both from her Ministry work and from Uncle Chen. There are also other family connections that she uses.
In fact, those networks form an important element in this novel. In Mei’s Beijing, money does matter. But what matters just as much – perhaps more – is one’s circle of friends and acquaintances. It’s very difficult to get anything done if you don’t know the right people, or at least, know the people who do. And it’s interesting to see how those informal networks are actually much more fruitful than anything in official channels.
The novel takes place in the late 1990s, before the days of the Internet and easy access to online information. So, readers get a look at the way PI work was done in the era before a few keystrokes put the world at one’s disposal. There’s plenty of use of the telephone, and several face-to-face meetings. In a few places in the novel, Mei follows people, too.
But this isn’t the sort of PI novel that’s full of hair-raising adventure, fistfights, and so on. In fact, other than one murder, there really isn’t violence in this story. The novel isn’t explicit in other ways, either.
The Wang family history is also an important element in the novel, and in some ways, it reflects the larger history of China in the last forty years or so. Mei’s parents were caught up in the Cultural Revolution, and sent to the camps. Her mother was able to leave the camp and take her two daughters with her. Her father, though, wasn’t so lucky. And that’s the history of many, many Chinese families. There are some interesting questions raised about that time period, and Liang shows that, years later, it still matters.
But this is modern China (well, late-1990’s China). So, we also get a real sense of what today’s Beijing is like. It’s a modern metropolis, but it’s also impacted by many centuries of tradition. The Party, of course, has a powerful influence, too. Although there are opportunities to make money, by no means does Beijing have what you’d call a market economy. Housing is assigned, and shopping is restricted to state-owned stores for many things, unless you happen to be a foreigner, or have a lot of ‘clout.’ Liang also places readers in Beijing both geographically and culturally.
The story is told from Mei’s perspective (third person, past tense). Readers who prefer more than one point of view will notice this. Because of that choice of perspective, we learn a lot about Mei’s character. She is modern and independent. She survived a sad breakup, but doesn’t wallow, and isn’t really interested in finding a man, if I can put it that way. She’s smart and resourceful, but readers who are tired of ‘superhero’ protagonists will be pleased to know that she is also vulnerable, as we all are. And in some ways, she’s traditional. She feels a strong sense of duty to her family, especially her mother and her aunt, even though her relationship with her mother has been rocky.
I don’t want to give away spoilers. But I can say that this novel presents offers some interesting moral ambiguity. The choices people make and the reasons for those choices are a major element in this novel, and they’re not always clear-cut. And this isn’t the sort of novel where the guilty party is led away to face justice (whatever that even is). Readers who enjoy mulling over moral and ethical questions will appreciate this.
The Eye of Jade is a distinctly Beijing PI novel. It features a modern mystery that’s rooted very much in events decades earlier, and introduces an independent detective who has to grapple with some very difficult questions. But what’s your view? Have you read The Eye of Jade? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 21 November/Tuesday, 22 November – Rule 34 – Charles Stross
Monday, 28 November/Tuesday, 29 November – The Secret River – Kate Grenville
Monday, 5 December/Tuesday, 6 December – Rim of the Pit – Hake Talbot