Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge in expensive European hotels.
The woman is Therese Irxmayer, aka Lady Holly, an arms dealer with a sharp mind, a history and a great derriere. The novel’s genesis rests in her mysterious presence. Concession is a fantastic romantic-sexy-spy novel, but it is also a deeply considered psychological exploration of real-life events in colonial Shanghai. According to Xiao Bai, while he was in the early stages of researching the novel, he happened upon this line in the Shanghai Municipal Archives:
It was the White Russian Woman who first attracted Lieutenant Sarly’s attention.
This woman was Therese. Xiao continues:
That is how it all started. In 1931, Lieutenant Sarly of the Political Section was attempting to make sense of the chaos in the French Concession in order to crack an unsolved case. He was poring over old files when he found this White Russian woman. Almost eighty years later, I was sitting in the reading room trying to piece together a chain of events that happened at the beginning of the 1930s in the French Concession. As I was reading the same files Sarly would have read, the same woman leaped right out at me.
In Xiao’s telling, Therese is the lover of Weiss Hsueh, aka Hsueh Wei-shih, a Franco-Chinese photographer with a penchant for murder scenes. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say Hsueh is Therese’s lover, so jealous is he of her frequent philandering. In any case, his connection to Therese leads Hsueh to become the key detective in Lieutenant Sarly’s investigation.
It is Hsueh’s photographic eye that brings us to the novel’s next driving question:
Who is that woman?
She is Leng Hsiao-man. In the novel’s first chapters, she is a revolutionary married to the counter-revolutionary she is about to betray. Just before this assassination, Hsueh photographs her. Finding her expression of desperation intriguing, Hsueh wants to know who she could be. After the assassination, so does every one else, including Lieutenant Sarly and Leng herself. Vacillating between self-doubt and revolutionary zeal, Leng’s actions remain mysterious, perhaps to herself most of all.
Xiao’s attention to mystery, and not just the whodunit, is the novel’s great strength. Its fragmented storytelling, together with its attention to the characters’ own sense of nebulousness, allows Xiao to explore the effects of living in liminal space and liminal times—like colonial Shanghai—on the human psyche. The mystery is so well balanced by attention to cinematic detail, colors, tastes, smells, sounds, and movements, that the novel’s scenes rise before us vividly, even as each scene is only a piece in the ever evolving montage of who these characters are.
Even at the very end, Therese, Leng, and Hsueh, who come to form both the love triangle and the crime triangle around which the novel revolves, remain as unfocused, and yet intriguing, to us as they do to each other. And our pleasure as readers is not so much to follow the twists and curves of the plot, although that is certainly entertaining, but rather to imagine, with each detail, who these women—and men—are, or could possibly be.