STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Among all the cultural changes imposed by Chairman Mao in China during his long rule, we find this - sleuthing. Detecting was a banned profession, and only made a comeback in the early 1990s. In today's installment of Crime in the City, NPR's Anthony Kuhn introduces us to a fictional private investigator in Beijing.
ANTHONY KUHN: In the pages of author Diane Wei Liang's novels, Mei Wang can often be found hunting down leads amid Beijing's maze of alleyways known as hutongs. These lanes are formed by courtyard walls, the point of which is to keep outsiders from seeing what's going on behind them. That's exactly what Wang tries to do. In one episode, she attends the wake of an old hutong dweller who died under mysterious circumstances. She's on the trail of an artifact for which the book is named, "A Paper Butterfly."
Ms. DIANE WEI LIANG (Author): After the wake, she was followed by someone. It was very dark. She actually got lost. The way that she could find her way around was actually by looking up right here at the drum tower.
KUNH: For centuries the drum tower used to tell time for the residents in the hutongs below.
Okay, well, it's starting to rain. Let's head for the cafe here.
Before becoming a private investigator, Mei Wang was a policewoman in China's Ministry of Public Security. But Diane Liang says her fictional character decided to take a moral stand and leave the ministry when she was asked to perform a certain favor.
Ms. LIANG: A personal favor that she had to give and something that her boss demanded from her not for himself but for a minister so that he could progress within the ministry.
And so Detective Wang did what many other people did in the early 1990s — she decided to xiahai, or jump into the sea of private enterprise. For Wang, it meant throwing away the key to the elite life for which her family had groomed her.
Ms. LIANG: It was absolutely a springboard for a better marriage and for a better life. And the job Mei had in the ministry provided all that. And so by giving that up, she really had turned her back on the privilege and the luxury that her old job could provide.
KUHN: China in the early 1990s was caught up in a headlong race towards a market economy. Private investigation firms were technically illegal, but Chinese needed PIs to shadow unfaithful spouses, extract debts, and to provide protection that the state couldn't.
Author Liang says her fictional character is constantly navigating through moral and legal gray areas.
Ms. LIANG: She's constantly in danger of being discovered and being turned in by someone who's against her. And there's a huge sense of danger and suspense in terms of her as a private detective, without even stepping into a crime scene.
KUHN: I notice that not only is Mei Wang searching for facts and trying to solve crimes, but she's also being a bit of a historian, tracing people and events back into the past, particularly into the recent history of the Cultural Revolution. Why is that such an important part of the Mei Wang stories?
Ms. LIANG: Because it was a difficult time that people went through, and really, people were turning in their friends, husbands were betraying wives. It was just really, really dark times. People were put in that position, to choose between life and death.
KUHN: In the first Mei Wang novel, "The Eye of Jade," Wang tries to understand her relationship with her father. She remembers the year she spent with him in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s.
Ms. LIANG: And that was the last time they saw her father, as a six-year-old. And then her father dies in the later years, when he was further sent into prison for what he had allegedly done, and that was the dark secret — why he was sent to prison and who played a part in it.
KUHN: To write this part of the book, Diane Liang drew on her own experiences as a child. Liang spent time with her parents in a May 7th Cadre School, where intellectuals were forced to do manual labor. Some two decades later, Liang was a Beijing University student and a participant in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
She recalls that on the night before the massacre, the students were terrified that soldiers had already surrounded them.
Ms. LIANG: The security which we built was by holding hands and standing all the way around the square, was probably not going to make much difference if there were soldiers coming out of these giant, dark buildings from behind us. And of course they were in these buildings.
KUHN: They were indeed, and seeing as they were armed with rifles and bayonets, there was very little you could do about it.
Ms. LIANG: Very little.
KUHN: Tiananmen was a formative experience for the fictional Mei Wang too. But at the time, Wang was working as a cop, on the opposite side of the author who created her.
Ms. LIANG: And she felt torn. All her friends from university were demonstrating while she was with the police, and they cracked down on it. So for her it was a real baggage that she's been carrying.
(Soundbite of music)
KUHN: We continue our walk through the hutongs, where peeking opera is playing from an old radio. Diane Liang now looks at Beijing as both a native and an expat. She lives in London and writes in English. The rain is still coming down and we look for a doorway to shelter in. As it happens, we find one next to a funerary shop. It reminds Diane Liang of the wake scene in "Paper Butterfly." Mei Wang follows a trail of paper butterflies that turn out to be the key to understanding the death of an elderly hutong resident.
Ms. LIANG: In fact, the neighbors all harbor some secrets in the demise of the old man. They were afraid that his ghost had come back and left a paper butterfly on their doorstep the day after he died.
KUHN: The crime is perfect for the close-knit environment of the hutongs. Everyone was complicit in the crime, yet everyone was also a victim of it. Diane Liang says she's now writing a third installment of the Mei Wang series, updating her and Beijing for the new century.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
INSKEEP: You can find excerpts from the Mei Wang novels at the new npr.org.