Qiu Xiaolong's The Mao Case is an overtly political story with hints of poetics and history that fall flat. There is a mystery in the story, but it arrives too late in the novel to maintain interest.
The mystery begins with Chief Inspector Chen of Shanghai investigating a case from China's Internal Security about a woman who could possibly release information that could humiliate the memory of Mao and the communist party. As flimsy as a premise as that may sound, the story continues with tales of a movie star, Shang, who was one of Mao's secret lovers, and the tragedy of her family. The history provides Shang's granddaughter Jiao with a motive and possible material for the plot. Chen's role is to infiltrate an intellectual group that meets at an old mansion in Shanghai and parties like it's 1930. There are also some subplots--mostly about Chen's lost love who gets married in Beijing.
There are many times that lines of translated poetry is quoted by Chen and others. These lines should provide the reader with insight into the mystery that is unfolding, but they often do not. The politics is so overwhelming in the first few chapters that it feels like Qiu is hitting the reader over the head with his views. There are many conversations about the Cultural Revolution, and its impact on how people live today.
The real action of the story doesn't arrive in the novel until almost 200 pages into the 289 pages of the book. Even when the mystery finally comes close to its end, it sounds rather half-baked--almost an afterthought thrown into the mix.
While the story itself isn't engaging, Qiu does show some glimmers of hope in his prose. There are passages that sound poetic and descriptions that grab the reader.
Again, Chen was lost in a recurring dream scene--of an ancient gray gargoyle murmuring in the twilight-covered Forbidden City, in the midst of black bats flapping around the somber grottos--when he was awakened.
Unfortunately, those moments of literary beauty are not consistent and get lost in The Mao Case.