West, Christopher. (1997). Death of a Red Mandarin. New York: Berkley Prime Crime, Penguin Putnam Inc.


Death of a Red Mandarin is a somewhat imaginative crime-detective novel though the main protagonist, Inspector Wang Anzhuang, is a familiar stock figure.  He is intelligent, witty, anti-establishment and at times even philosophical about the work he does. Wang is portrayed as a man who is forced to conform to institutional imperatives but still attempts to find his own independent space of action.  . At times, Wang makes arbitrary decisions about justice which the reader is expected to accept because he is shown to be an exceptional individual who has a strong sense of  ethical purpose.

With the 1997 handover of Hong Kong imminent, Wang, a Beijing policeman, is sent to Hong Kong to investigate the murder of a high-ranking Communist Party official (Zhang Fei) whose body is found floating in Victoria Harbour. The death is a potential public embarrassment for Beijing which is eager to maintain the reputation of its bureaucracy in the pre-handover context. Wang travels to Hong Kong with his boss Chen Runfa who is a party acolyte placed to ensure conformity to Beijing’s wishes in the investigation. As Wang  soon discovers, the only interest of Chen and Fang, the Party Secretary in Hong Kong, is to ensure a swift conclusion to the investigation that places the blame of Fei’s death on a British conspiracy to discredit Beijing.

Wang’s investigations reveal that Zhang Fei, though highly regarded, was a man with a shady past who had dealings with triads, illegal smuggling, and perverse sexual preferences. The immediate suspicion for Fei’s murder falls on Party Secretary Fang. Fang makes a botched attempt to threaten and scare Wang off the investigation but Wang confronts Fang who admits to threatening Zhang but denies any involvement in hismurder.

The narrative  holds out the possibility of a deep-seated Communist Party conspiracy in the murder of Fei.. But as Wang’s tenacious commitment to truth reveals, the murder was committed by a Mainland woman living in exile in Hong Kong and a prostitute named Veronica, abused by Zhang. The woman, Matilda Yip, had worked in a mainland  orphanage under Zhang’s charge where children were routinely abused. She had escaped to Hong Kong with one of the orphans, and attempted to rebuild a life for herself before discovering that Fei had been promoted and transferred to Hong Kong. Wang discovers both Veronica and Matilda are driven by revenge, and that the murder replicates the cruel treatment of children in the orphanage and Zhang’s sexual degradation of Veronica. The story concludes with Wang delaying reporting his findings to the Hong Kong Police giving Matilda and the child sufficient time to escape.

The narrative attempts  to expose corruption in the Beijing bureaucracy,  and the  culture of mediocrity and self-serving bureaucratic individualism this  creates. Though limited by the conventions of its genre, the novel delivers this critique  without the usual sweeping generalizations about Mainland culture and politics. This is partly achieved by making Wang a romanticized anti-establishment figure. (HR) 


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