Death of a Blue Lantern
"Does for China what Gorky Park did for Russia"
Oline Cogdill, Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel
"The ambivalent morality of modern China is intelligently exposed, but not at the expense of a first class crime story."
Marcel Berlins, The Times
This is the first of my quartet of crime novels set in modern China, featuring Wang Anzhuang, a mid-ranking detective in the Beijing Xing Zhen Ke (= CID) and, in the later novels, his wife Rosina Lin.
After travelling in China and writing about those travels (Journey to the Middle Kingdom), I wanted to write more about the world’s largest, and (to me) most fascinating, nation. But how, exactly? My inspiration came from the movie Gorky Park. There were so many things I loved about this film. Like good travel writing, it really got inside another culture. The screenplay was, of course, marvellous: edgy, insightful, devoid of flab – Dennis Potter was a genius. And above all, there was the character of Arkady Renko. I was fascinated by his combination of loyalty to the Soviet system and his individuality. The film (more than the book, though that is excellent, too) avoided the trap of the ‘maverick cop against the system’ cliché. Renko is a bit of a maverick, but he is ultimately loyal to his country and system. This struck me as real and human. A Soviet cop would be a Soviet citizen, with all the good and bad things that implied. A Chinese cop would be part of the system too – but a sensitive, intelligent man in that position would also be thoughtful, aware and maybe a little troubled …
And so began that wonderful process by which fictional characters emerge from the simple black-and-white of the outline and slowly grow into real, complex human beings… Anyone who writes will know the joy and the strangeness of this process: how, as you work on them, characters come to life. They acquire minds and wills of their own. ‘No, the inspector wouldn’t do that,’ I find myself thinking as I try to squeeze him in a situation required by the plot (in the end, the plot has to change…)
Actually, the first thing I wrote was a short story, about 40 pages, about the theft and illegal sales of cultural treasures. The plot was very simple – not much mystery; what I enjoyed was creating the characters around the inspector: his odious boss, the thuggish underling, his streetwise friend in the information department. By the time I’d finished this, I knew I had to write a full-length novel about these people.
Death of a Blue Lantern begins at the Beijing opera, a traditional art form that I knew the inspector would enjoy. A body is found at the theatre; subsequent investigations lead to gangland connections (a ‘Blue Lantern’ is a junior member of a triad). But is there corruption within the police as well? At the same time, the inspector comes under official scrutiny for his lack of enthusiasm for Party policy around and after the Tiananmen Square massacre…
The book is set in the very early 1990′s, and the shadow of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre hangs over it. The Party was keen to silence any dissent. There was an official line, that the ‘political turmoil’ was caused by troublemakers who had to be stopped. Anyone who disagreed with this line was in trouble. Wang is not a western liberal, and would be well aware of the dangers of anarchy (he would have seen China plunged into anarchy at the end of the 1967 – 76 ‘Cultural Revolution’, and would have a Shakespearean fear of it). He is a Communist Party member, from conviction, not convenience. But he is also a sensitive and patriotic man, who saw the People’s Liberation Army (a concept in which he believes wholeheartedly) firing on the People. He does not have easy answers to the difficulties this causes him.
I worked on the book’s structure for what seemed like ages – the plot was mapped out on pieces of A4 stuck together, lengthways, with sellotape. (Sadly, I think I’ve thrown these away – I’d love to see them now.)
When this was done, it was time to go back to China… This was one of the great benefits of writing the series – three of the four books necessitated research trips. I set off mainly in search of locations to set scenes in, but actually made contact with the police and learnt much more about how they go about their business. The overriding impression I got was that politics was not central to their lives, which instead were very similar to lives of police officers in the UK – trying to protect the public from the activities of criminals (though one officer complained that he spent more time being called out to domestic disputes than anything else). Clearly, the need to prove a case is far less strong in China, but it is not non-existent – officers have to account to their superiors.
I did not speak to any officer about the Tiananmen massacre: I felt this would be both rude and counter-productive (they would just have ‘shut up shop’, and, given the level of paranoia about the whole business, I wouldn’t blame them).
Armed with this knowledge, I started the actual writing. It took several drafts to get right – sadly I am not a quick writer. I then found a publisher, Harper Collins (actually two publishers were suddenly interested – publishers are like buses; you wait for ages, then two come along at once…)
An attractive hardback came out in 1994. I got an excellent quote from Simon Brett, who had taught me on a particularly good Arvon course with PD James (the course graduates still stay in touch). Marcel Berlins reviewed the book for the Times. Best of all, the book was nominated for ‘Best First Novel’ at the 1994 World Mystery Convention (Bouchercon). Bouchercon is the world’s top convention for crime writing: this is not a ‘Mickey Mouse’ award but a real honour. Sitting at my table at the convention dinner when the list was read out and then the winner announced was a huge thrill – even though the prize actually went to Caleb Carr’s ‘The Alienist’.
The book was also published in America, Japan and Germany. In 1999 it came out in UK paperback. It is now going to be reissued as the world focuses its attention on Beijing for the Olympics.
Blue Lantern is about Beijing in the early 1990′s. Can I still call it a novel of contemporary China? Tiananmen has ceased to be such a defining issue in Chinese life, though it is still a source of unease to the Party. And China has become much wealthier since those days: the face of Beijing has changed radically, for the better in some ways (more prosperity, which has to be good thing) and for the worse in others (destruction of the hutongs, appalling pollution). But behind that face, power is still exercised in the same harsh way as it was in the early ’90s (and always has been). And people like Wang Anzhuang and Rosina Lin still strive to do what is right – by the standards of their culture and traditions, not ours – despite the twin lures of official face-saving and of corruption. This remains the reality of twenty-first century, Olympic China, and I find it fascinating.
"Everything one can ask for from a crime novel – pace, excitement and a skilfully contrasted cast of characters. Above all, it presents a totally convincing portrait of modern China."
"All the hallmarks of a great detective in the making"
Michael Pollitt, Eastern Daily Press