Paper Butterfly by Diane Wei Liang

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Paper Butterfly by Diane Wei Liang

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Melony Sanders
Reviewed by Melony Sanders
Summary: Mei, a private investigator in Beijing, is approached by a record company executive when one of his rising stars goes missing. The investigation leads her to a man called Lin, who hasn't been heard of since 1989. This is a reasonable story with a fresh twist.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 247 Date: May 2009
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330447775

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Mei runs her own private investigation business, although she calls it an information consultancy because private investigation is illegal in China. When she is asked to find a missing girl, a popular singer called Kaili, she expects to find that the girl is just taking some time out. But Kaili is eventually found dead, apparently murdered, and Mei is warned off the case. Curious, Mei continues with the investigation, and finds a link with a student called Lin who was involved with the student uprising back in 1989. Can Mei find out what really happened to Kaili? And where is the mysterious Lin?

Having spent many years of my life living in China, particularly Beijing, and being a massive fan of crime fiction, I was delighted that this book combines my interests. I have read some crime fiction based in China before - authors such as Peter May and Qiu Xiaolong particularly spring to mind - but there is always room for more. The setting for this book is particularly close to my heart because it is near the Drum Tower in central Beijing, where I lived for many years, and I found that the descriptions of life in the hutongs (alleyways) were particularly well-described and vivid.

The story is split into two halves. The first half tells of Mei's introduction to the case, interspersed with the story of Lin, who has just been released from labour camp after many years. This is a little confusing, because it is not initially clear whether Mei and Lin's stories are taking place simultaneously or not. However, it did serve to keep me interested, and anyway, the chapters are short, so it is not long before the second half of the book begins, which is the story of Mei's investigation proper. I think that the second half is stronger than the first - it runs much more smoothly because it is not skipping between characters. It is also the part of the book where the most action takes place, so it is more interesting to read.

Character development is not a strongpoint of this book. This is apparently the second in a series featuring Mei, so it may be that her character was given a more in-depth description in the first book. However, I was disappointed that we don't find out very much about her at all. We are given a potted explanation of her family history and how she came to set up her agency, but it left me asking a lot of questions and I would have appreciated a little more background. The book is so short that it wouldn't have been detrimental to the story. Lin is rather a shadowy character, mainly a deliberate stance on the part of the author. However, I didn't find him particularly convincing. What we do find out about him doesn't always fit with his actions and I found myself unable to believe that he would act in the way that he does.

Partly because of the weak characterisation, there are some aspects to the plot that just don't seem to gel together very well and I think it could have done with a little bit more thought to make it flow better and seem less contrived. On the plus side, I did enjoy the story; there is definitely a charm to it that makes it seem fresh and a little bit different and that is not just because of the setting, although that helps. I think that the author shows definite promise and I will certainly be looking out for more books in the series.

There are a few typos throughout the book, all relating to the spelling of Chinese pinyin - the romanisation system used to transcribe the Chinese language. For example, yo bing (a type of fried bread) should be written you bing, and hou che (fire engine) should be written huo che. This may not be important to most people, who may not even realise, but it irritated me and I see no reason for it other than bad editing. I also found the use of Chinese names to be rather strange - in general, names have at least two syllables; for example, we are told at the beginning of the story that Mei's surname is Wang - she would therefore be known as Wang Mei and not just Mei. However, I appreciate that the author wanted to keep things simple by referring to her simply as Mei.

I really enjoy anything that tries to educate the Western world about China, and this book definitely does do that. It shows a human side to China that a lot of people don't seem to be able to imagine, and, with the Olympics fast coming up in Beijing, I think that this is important. I do think that the story could have been better, and, to a certain extent, I think the author has tried to hide the weak points of the story under the exoticness of the setting. However, I still think that this book deserves a read and can recommend it to anyone who enjoys crime fiction, particularly in settings that are a little out of the ordinary.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If you enjoy this book, you may also enjoy books by Peter May and Qiu Xiaolong, both of whom set their stories in China. We also enjoyed The Pool of Unease by Catherine Sampson.

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