G.X. Chen’s novel The Mystery of Moutai follows the unraveling of a murder mystery that is seemingly unsolvable by the Boston police. A homely and unadventurous woman, Shao Mei, is found dead in her home, but there is no motive or suspect to be found. Since the police have no clues, friends of the deceased help by digging into the dead woman’s past, eventually taking the investigation to China.
The narrative voice is a bit repetitive when the characters are contemplating and discussing what could have happened to Shao Mei. The plotline seems to drag on, with little action or character development, especially in the beginning of the story, and even throughout their travels in China. The clues and the assumptions seem weak and far-fetched, focusing on the smallest details in order to progress the story, at a sometimes painfully slow rate.
The story alternates each chapter between a progression in the story line, followed by a diary entry from an unknown character, slowly giving the reader clues about the story. It’s very bizarre that the Chinese characters, even those living in China, use many English idioms such as beats me, gotten her in the doghouse, meet her maker, and our lucky stars aligned. While they are correct, it makes it very difficult to feel fully absorbed into the characters’ authentic personalities. This is also felt in the very choppy dialogue, and the fact that there is no differentiation between narrative and dialogue. The only way I could tell the difference between each character is by their names, or how they are described physically, as they all have the same manner of speaking.
It is also difficult to feel fully absorbed in the story with the minute details that progress it as well as the frequent grammar mistakes. Towards the end, once the killer is revealed, I got a sense that this murder mystery novel turned into a somewhat cheesy crime solving story (cue “and I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids).” Perhaps these things that I consider issues within the writing style of the author are just cultural and the dialect of the language is different.
Overall, the story line is intriguing and the author approaches the novel in an interesting way, by weaving together fact and fiction, showing us the cultural history of China in the 20th century. I enjoyed the descriptions of China’s cultural history and landscapes, as well as the basic premise of the book.
Although The Mystery of Moutai by G.X. Chen was not as face paced as I would have liked, I would recommend this book to those looking for an easy and intriguing murder mystery.
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