Diane Wei Liang has launched a private investigator series set in modern day China that has resulted in two novels so far. The author was a protestor in Tiananmen Square and writes of the clash between old and new China with considerable skill.
I loved Liang’s vision of China, and was really surprised at how familiar some of the surroundings felt. Of course, there were a lot of jarring dissimilarities as well, but everyday life in the country wasn’t as different as I’d thought. After only a few chapters, I felt at home there.
The heroine, Mei Wang, has a family that most mystery readers and fans will identify with. The family is filled with pressure, secrets, and constant pushing and pulling of loyalties and guilt. I especially loved the rivalry between Mei and her younger sister, who married “correctly.”
One of the main differences I discovered between China and the United States is the idea of money. In China, money isn’t the main force an individual can bring to bear to make things happen – it’s influence, something you have to earn.
The author’s writing is lean and taut, and the pacing shows a lot of skill for a first novel. I enjoyed the dialogue a lot, and was again surprised at how familiar it felt, while at the same time embracing ideas that were strange to me.
I further enjoyed the fact that being a private investigator in China is illegal, and that Mei Wang has to operate outside the system by serving as an “information consultant.” The character is an ex-cop, one that had served within law enforcement offices, then fallen into disfavor and basically forced out. That made her immediately sympathetic for me.
Mei Wang’s questioning of herself about the choices she’s made in her life, when making the correct choice in China seems to be everything, is wonderful. I’m sure most readers have gone through similar circumstances, but the character’s whole life is put on display for her readers.
I’m looking forward to the second book in the series, Paper Butterfly, because the plot to that one sounds like it ranges even wider throughout China and contains an even more interesting mystery. Mystery readers looking for something different, with some exposure to an unfamiliar culture (assuming they weren’t raised in China) will find a lot to like in this novel.