SHANGHAI -- To climb into Qiu Xiaolong's childhood home, down a narrow alley where women chop and fry lunch in shared kitchens, is to step on creaking floorboards into Shanghai's past.
But at the top of a steep, worn wooden ladder is a loft with a window revealing the silvery crown of an office tower, part of the glass-and-steel skyscape that heralds Shanghai's leap into the future.
But for a city to fully secure its place in the global culture these days, it helps to have a fictional detective taking foreign readers where the guidebooks don't go, and that's where Qiu comes in with his brainchild, Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police.
In China, the communist authorities still impose boundaries on all things creative, and an author must be careful how much of the recent past to insert into a work of fiction. That particularly applies to Qiu, a Shanghai native transplanted to St. Louis, Missouri.
His seven mysteries published in English often are based on real-life corruption scandals, political intrigues and murders, and at 59, this mild-mannered poet and literary scholar has lived through tumultuous times himself.
In his teens came the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, when aged revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, maneuvering against his rivals, unleashed ultra-leftist "Red Guards" to wage a reign of terror on teachers, artists and others of "bourgeois" backgrounds. Only Qiu's bronchitis spared him a stint, along with millions of others, at "re-education" camps in the countryside.
In 1989, when the military crushed the pro-democracy movement massed in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, he was on a fellowship in St. Louis, and decided it was best not to come home.
Qiu even has a fleeting connection to the man at the center of the latest convulsion in Chinese politics, Communist princeling Bo Xilai, who was ousted in an affair that includes a suspected murder. The two were graduate students at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in the late 1970s, though their only interaction, Qiu says, was when Bo borrowed his favorite pingpong paddle. He never returned it.
"One thing good about writing about China is that so many things are happening, you don't have to worry about writers' block," he remarked as he sat in a favorite Shanghai restaurant, "Laobanzhai," or the "Boss's Place."
Here, a dish described on the menu as "vegetable rice" sells for as little as 3 yuan (about 50 cents) a bowl, and penny-pinching seniors sometimes bring cheap cuts of meat in their pockets to slip into their noodles.
The very rich, on the other hand, can flaunt it on "knife fish," or Yangtze saury, an endangered species advertised by the restaurant for 4,400 yuan a kilogram (more than $300 a pound).
Coming back to the Bo Xilai case, Qiu is forgiving about the missing pingpong paddle, but he has qualms about Bo's style during his time as party chief in the sprawling Yangtze River metropolis of Chongqing, when he championed mass sing-alongs that harked back to the Cultural Revolution days.
It "speaks of the real danger of the Cultural Revolution staging a comeback," Qiu said.
The Shanghai that Qiu grew up had once been known as the "Paris of the Orient," but became a grimy shadow of its pre-communist glory – a city of workers' fatigues and shoppers lining up with ration tickets.
Qiu worked at a textile factory and buried himself in books. His translations of T.S. Eliot's work into Chinese eventually led him to a Ford Foundation fellowship and St. Louis.
His Inspector Chen series began in 2000 with "Death of a Red Heroine," in which the investigation into the murder of a young woman, a model worker, leads to high places in the Communist Party.
Although his books are sold in China, the classic "whodunnit" remains an alien genre here, outgunned by zombie tales, he says.
Those are safer in a society where the police and the party are presumed to be infallible, Qiu explains.
"The focus is not on who did it. In the Chinese crime novel, you know who did it," he says. "A lot of people know who is the bad guy, but what can you do about it?"
Qiu came across the plot for his latest Chen novel, "'Don't Cry, Tai Lake," by accident. Walking in a park near the scenic but horribly polluted lake in Wuxi, outside Shanghai, he happened upon a spa for Communist Party cadres.
"I remembered that place from when I was a child because at that time it was very mysterious to me," Qiu recalled.
There were plenty of rooms, so he stayed a few days.
"Maybe because of the pollution of the lake, not too many senior officials want to stay there. It stinks," he said.
"You smell it all day, so you ask questions, and very naturally the story comes to you."
Though Qiu's version includes plenty of fictional elements, including an attractive young lady, it is based on fact: excessive pollution did leave the lake's water undrinkable for a time, and an activist who disclosed the problem was jailed.
Woven through the narrative is "Don't Cry, Jade River," a poem he wrote 25 years ago, lamenting the despoliation of his country:
"the dead fish afloat, shining
"with the mercury bellies trembling,
"their glassy eyes still flashing,
"with the last horror and fascination..."
Qiu says he expects the Chongqing intrigue also will eventually find its way into his storytelling – "Maybe change the background a bit. Change the details. I still want to come back to China."
He often returns to Shanghai and always tries to visit the family home, downtown near Shanghai's riverfront, along a leafy street of shoe shops and hole-in-the wall diners.
Old calendars on the walls and an antique dresser with inlaid art deco white and blue glass recall an era when such modest possessions were cherished, before H&M, Ikea, Best Buy and cross-town expressways arrived. Even now, there are no modern amenities – no bath, toilet or TV.
Walking to a neighboring alley, its narrow walls draped with electrical wires and washing, Qiu is greeted with shouts by old friends. They banter in the Shanghainese dialect. A one-time Red Guard leader turns up, complaining. Others chime in. The old neighborhood needs to be torn down, they say, and better housing built. "The people still living there are the ones who cannot afford to buy new apartments," Qiu explains.
It's a crowded way of living, and after many years away, Qiu can see both good and bad in it.
"It's dark. This neighbor puts a stove here. That neighbor puts a box there. It's common property, so you often have fights about this kind of thing," he says.
"People can fight, but at the same time, it's much closer," Qiu said. "Maybe sometimes we have no choice; we have to help each other."
Qiu is well settled in St. Louis, living off the proceeds of book sales. His wife is a part-time accountant and his daughter recently graduated from college. Living with them is his mother-in-law, for whom he catches catfish, bass and other fish for her to cook.
He considers his outsider status to be an advantage, and worries that if he moved back to Shanghai, he'd be sucked into the property-buying, stock-investing culture. But he does like to visit that loft and gaze out the window.
"If you get lonely," he says, "you can see the cats come to visit."