Joining the Whodunit Reading Challenge hosted by Gathering Books has really encouraged me to read more mysteries, even if my challenge is technically over. I tried to widen my reading range when it comes to the genre, and one of the authors I discovered is Diane Wei Liang, whose The Eye of Jade was quite satisfying -- but not exactly for its mystery.
Mei Wang is an independent woman who has resigned from her job at the Ministry of Public Security to be a private detective (or information consultant, since detectives are banned in China). Aside from dealing with the challenges of debt collection, she also struggles with her younger sister Lu, a TV personality who is prettier, richer, and clearly their mother's favorite. When her Uncle Chen, an old friend of her mother's, asks her to find a very important artifact, Mei doesn't hesitate. The search takes her to antique stores and train stations, to hutongs and gambling dens, and even into her family's past.
Ms Liang's book is a sharp look into modern-day China. It paints a grittier Beijing, one that exists beside the grand structures of the Forbidden City or the tourist-perfect scenery of the Summer Palace. But in Ms Liang's case, 'gritty' takes on an almost beautiful quality: detailed in some places (Tofu Flower Soup was now all over the floor, white jelly-like chunks wobbling on top of thick brown broth (p76); poetic in others ('...one moment a caked face with smudged lips, and another, with the street lamps abandoned behind them like used-up chopsticks, just a pair of glowing eyes (p153).'
She takes her time with the first chapters to establish Mei's character and the kind of life she has by giving the reader a clear image of Mei's agency, her family, and even her friends. The mystery is only really introduced in the sixth chapter but because the chapters are relatively short, I didn't feel that the introduction was dragging. But as I kept on reading, I began to realize that the pace is deliberate; the artifact is a McGuffin and the real mystery involves Mei's own family. Readers who are looking for a throwback to the hard-boiled detective mysteries of old might find The Eye of Jade more of a family drama, but I think that Ms Liang and Mei Wang add a delicate and exotic touch to create a series that successfully marries the old with the new.