I picked up When Red is Black by Qiu Xiaolong published in 2004 mainly for author name starting with 'X' for the A to Z mystery challenge. I was also interested in crime novels interested in different countries.
Inspector Chen of Shangai police is on a two-week vacation to do a lucrative translation project for his friend. When former Red guard and University Professor Yin is found dead Inspector Yu takes charge. Yin is found dead in her one room home in a traditional Chinese house where many different families have rooms with common kitchen and courtyard. The front and back of the house is overlooked by many including a shrimp woman and a foodstall. They have not noticed a stranger get out of the house. It looks like an inside job. It looks like one of her many disgruntled neighbours have murdered her, have they? But that doesn't limit the suspects. There at least 100 people living in the house. Is there a political motivation for this murder? More than who or why, it is the how that seems important? How did the murderer get away?
Though Inspector Chen does not get involved in the case directly he gives inputs and plays an important role in the investigation. He has 'a little secretary' at his bidding to do whatever he wants provided by his friend who needs his translation service. There is a love angle between Yin and Yang. It is interesting to know how changing political dynamics can change the fate of a person.
There are lots of references to food from description of breakfast, lunch to dinner and gourmet food in restaurants and frugal gourmets. Sparrow gizzard, Sauna Shrimp, breakfast crisp noodles are just a sample. As the murdered woman is a Red Gaurd we get insightful details into lives of Red Gaurds during cultural revolution and what happened after. Every other page has a Chinese proverb and there are some interesting translation of Chinese love Poems. Qiu Xiaolong plays with nostalgia for the past bygone era before the cultural revolution. It is interesting to note that in 90s people still used coal to cook. Mystery itself is quite straightforward. But you get to know Shanghai of the 90s and the problems and anguish of the ordinary people- the changing China that is politically Communist while economically Capitalist.
I have never ever heard of any one being described as below-
"She was a delicious girl with a watermelon-seed-shaped face, almond eyes, and cherry lips."
An interesting read.