THE BLOG
08/06/2013 05:31 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2013

Enigmatic China Will Have You on the Edge of Your Seat

Qiu Xiaolong's Enigma of China, eighth in his Inspector Chen detective series, is a book that appears to have almost written itself. It is the kind of thing that writing teachers might dismiss as containing too many implausible dimensions -- except for the fact that almost all that was included is a direct transcript of China's current bizarre reality.

Contemporary China, as seen through the eyes of the one incorruptible poet-detective, Chen Cao, is a roiling land of people using each other, sizing each other up, lying, deceiving, cleverly employing corruption, arranging sex though power, creating rules that don't apply, deploying surveillance, controlling information. The only tenderness is between son and mother, and almost the only meaningful decision is made by that mother who chooses not to take advantage of her son's position to move into a modern spacious apartment. Everyone else is tainted.

Houses, cars, meals, girlfriends: everything is measured by cost and prestige.

The plot is thin. The explanations are not even fictional. But you couldn't invent this stuff if you tried:

Puns between "river crabs" (hexie) and "harmonize" (hexie). A brutal inquiry ending in a faked suicide. A detective close to solving it killed in a car accident on a narrow slow-moving street. An almost-girlfriend who chooses to marry someone with position and wealth, so her parents can stop paying for her luxurious life. A hospital available only with connections. A 10,000-yuan gift card given as a get-well gesture to an elderly woman with an important son. A clue in a cybercafé. Cigarettes of such high price that they bring down the powerful. Netizens publicizing the multiple high-end watches worn publicly by Party members. "Human flesh" search engines.

All this comes straight from the news.

China is one wild place.

Enigma of China may not be great invention or literature, but it is a wonderful crash course in the mysterious ways of contemporary China. If you want to brush up on your current events, framed by an intriguing narrative and a blush of a love story, read Enigma of China. It won't solve the mystery of China, but it will let you in on some of its stranger nooks and crannies. The denouement is still to come.