I have finished two detective novels today: Darkest fear, by Harlan Coben, and When Red is Black, by Qiu Xiaolong.
Darkest Fear is a very fast thriller about the search for a bone marrow donor. A 13-year-old kid’s life depends on a bone marrow transplant. Only one compatible donor has been found, but that donor has mysteriously disappeared. On closer investigation, it looks like this donor might have been using a stolen identity. Who is the mysterious donor? Why did he disappear? In a sudden unforeseen development, the investigation about the missing donors mixes with an investigation about a serial killer who might or might not exist. A journalist once wrote a story about a serial killer, claiming to have been contacted by the killer directly. The journalist is then accused of having invented this story, or even to have plagiarised it from a novel. But now it looks like the serial killer might be real after all, and might even be the bone marrow donor.
Like most Harlan Coben books, this one reads very fast. In a way it’s also less serious than some of his other books. There is a lot of irony used in the writing style. It gave me the impression that maybe, Harlan Coben wrote this book faster than his other books, but was aware of resorting to more clichés than usual, and somehow managed to make fun of his own writing in the book itself. The result is surprisingly very good.
When Red is Black is the third novel in the Chief Inspector Chen Cao series. The main character, is a literature graduate, published poet, and detective novel translator, who is assigned as a Chief Inspector of police by the Communist Party. He leads a special unit who only investigates murders with high political impact. Because of this, he is under a lot of pressure and scrutiny by the Party.
The investigations take place in Shanghai in the 1990s. They are mostly a pretext to paint a picture of China in the 90s, in particular the impact of the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong and the economic reforms that followed under Deng Xiaoping.
None of the main characters play go, but the author and the main character love a good metaphor, and of course go is full of them, so occasionally he encounters a go player in the street. Here is an example:
Turning another corner, he saw a white-haired old man playing go on a board resting on a stool, the black pieces in one of his hands and the white in the other, studying the board as if he were taking part in a national tournament. Chen liked go, too, but he had never tried to play the game solo.
“Hi,” he said, coming to a stop by the stool. “How come you are playing by yourself?”
“Have you read The Art of War?” the old man asked without looking up. “Know your enemy as you know yourself, and you will win every time.”
“Yes, I have read the book. You have to figure out why your opponent has made a certain move. So you must try hard to understand your opponent.”
“From my point of view, the positioning of the black piece does not make any sense, and the best I can do is to guess, to try to understand, as you put it. But that’s not enough. Knowing your enemy actually means that you not only have to think as if you were reading his mind, you have to be him.”
“I see. Thank you so much, Uncle. That is profound,” Chen said sincerely. To him, it seemed as if the talk were not just about the game of go. “I will put your teaching into practice, not just on a go board.”
“Young man, you don’t have to take me so seriously. When you play a game, you want to win,” the old man explained. “When you are absorbed in it, every piece counts, every move matters. Happy to win a corner, sad to lose a position, you are carried away with the illusion of gains or losses. Not until after the game will you come to realize it’s nothing but a game. According to Buddhist scripture, everything in this mundane world is a matter of illusion.”
“Exactly. You have put it very well.”
Chen decided to walk back to his apartment. He could not afford to spend a whole day in the lane. The conversation about go had cost him another ten minutes. The translation lay unfinished on his desk at home. Still, he wanted to think a little about the case, at least on his way back, after this talk with the elderly go player who had been as mysteriously enlightening as the old man of the Han dynasty who had helped Zhang Liang two thousand years ago.