(15. - 1154.) Hold Your Breath, China by Qiu Xiaolong - Chief Inspector Chen receives an unexpected call to a delicate case. Considered politically unreliable, Chen had not been initially assigned the investigation of a serial killer. His discreet, though unrelenting pursuit of the truth in recent high level cases of corruption have disturbed some high level Party officials. The truth is not always in the interest of the Party. Several senior Party members would be glad to remove him from his position.
Despite the political sensitivity of a serial killer Chen is summoned because the original team has made no progress. With a major Party meeting about to begin it would be a disaster for the Shanghai Police Bureau if the case is not promptly solved.
There have been four murders each a week apart. The first victim was a “night caregiver” in a hospital. The second is a weather anchorman. The third is a young sales manager at a real estate agency. The fourth is a journalist whose husband is Deputy Mayor of Shanghai.
Connections between the victims have been elusive. The dreaded Internal Security is convinced the fourth murder is unconnected and of a political nature.
During his first meeting on the case he is summoned from the meeting by Comrade Zhou, “the retired but still powerful secretary of the Central Discipline Committee in Beijing”. Officially Zhou is in Shanghai for a fresh air holiday. While heavy smog smothers Shanghai the air pollution is worse in Bejing where flights have been cancelled.
Zhou wants Chen to conduct surveillance on environmental activists meeting covertly. He is to find out “what they are trying to do in secret”.
Their leader, known online as Yuan Jing, is Chen’s former lover, Shanshan, from an earlier book Don’t Cry, Tai Lake. Are her goals modest or is she “recklessly pushing forward”?
The assignment is puzzling for both reader and Chen. While Chen is an accomplished investigator Zhou has access to far greater resources in manpower, electronic skills and coercion. Why is a high official being so oblique?
An old, well connected, friend at the Writers Association gives him a clear, but indirect, warning about the assignment.
Pollution is becoming an explosive issue in China as every major city resident sees, smells, tastes and feels the pollution every day. The Party is struggling to control the narrative on pollution.
Many people are buying air purification machines.
At the same time the serial killer case remains stalled. They need the insights the Chief Inspector can bring to difficult cases but his new assignment has made his participation marginal.
Intimate videos are circulating on the internet. Beyond embarrassment, how are they connected to the murders and the pollution campaign? Because of the “time-honored tradition of moral criticism” they could have devastating personal consequences.
Chen does discuss the serial killer case with his partner, Detective Yu. The methodical Yu, with the aid of his clever wife Peiqin, proves surprisingly imaginative in developing a theory provided by Chen.
Setting a story filled with actual and imagined conspiracies in China is credible where secrecy is practised by all. It is a challenge of Chinese life to recognize which conspiracies are real.
I was anxious to know if Chen and Shanshan would rekindle their relationship. While he is still single she has married. He still thinks of her:
Who is the one walking beside you?
By the water an apple tree
blossoming again flashing
smiles among the waking boughs
petals transparent in the dazzling light
she walks in a red trench coat
carries a report in her hand
like a bright sail cutting
through the contaminated currents
to the silent splendid sun.
For a time the emphasis in the story on air pollution was heavy handed. Yet as the end approached the two plot lines are brought together. Chen has become ever more adept at divining what Party leadership wants from cases and offering means to accomplish their goals. While maintaining personal modesty he is demonstrating strong political instincts.
The language of the first half of the book did not flow as well as in earlier books. The second half was much better. The poetry, as always, was exquisite.
The conclusion is moving and powerful. The satisfying ending was jolted by a disclosure in the final few pages that will carry over to the next book. Qiu Xiaolong, a subtle plotter, showed himself capable of a touch of Hollywood drama, albeit without a host of bodies. I bought the next book immediately.