The Golden Hairpin
There are a lot of historical mysteries on the market these days, but not so many set in ancient China. And of those, how many, in English, were originally written by a Chinese author for a Chinese audience? The Golden Hairpin by Qinghan CeCe, originally written in 2015 and translated into English just this year, is a suspense novel starring a Sherlockian female detective.
Huang Zixia, our heroine, is nineteen years old and accused of murdering her family as a protest against her unwanted engagement. So she travels across part of the country to Changan city to find the Prince of Kui, Li Shubai, to get his assistance in finding out who really killed them. To try and remain as inconspicuous as possible, Huang Zixia dresses as a man, and plays the part of a eunuch to continue her investigations. As one does.
Once in Changan city, Huang Zixia manages to get a meeting with Li Shubai, but he is reluctant to help her. In exchange for giving her a chance, Li Shubai gives Huang Zixia a task – solve the “Four Directions case”, where a serial killer has murdered three victims and is expected to kill another within the week. She has ten days.
The overall story is built both on lucky happenstance (Huang Zixia disguises herself as a guard, and gets assigned to the exact person she needs to see!) and amazing insight on our female detective’s part. Huang Zixia is a bit on the timid side, but determined and smart, managing to stay on just the right side of ‘plucky girl detective’ while solving an unsolvable mystery. Helping her, along with Li Shubai (who aids her in spite of his seeming reluctance), is Zhou Ziqin, a young doctor-in-training who digs up dead bodies on the side. Again, as you do. Zhou Ziqin is an interesting character, if nothing else than because he’s in love with Huang Zixia, or at least with the image of her. Throughout all of this, Huang Zixia is disguised as a eunuch named Yang Chonggu, and Zhou Ziqin constantly professes his love of Huang Zixia to Yang Chonggu, who is, in fact, Huang Zixia.
After solving the unsolvable, however, Huang Zixia is entangled in another mystery – the new fiancée of Li Shubai is first threatened, then disappears, and then found murdered in something of a sealed room mystery. This new conundrum brings Huang Zixia and Li Shubai together again to solve the problem, along with a pipa player (a pipa seems to be an instrument similar to a western lute), Li Shubai’s past, Huang Zixia’s former fiancé, and the empress. It’s actually kinda fascinating.
Overall, it’s amazing how all these little strings of plot come together, and it seems so random at the time, but it works. The only issue I had was that the story doesn’t really flow. Maybe it’s an effect of the translation process, maybe it’s a cultural difference that I had difficulty with as a reader, I’m really not sure, but as a result the process of reading this book ends up feeling a bit piecemeal.
Something I found particularly interesting, especially as a romance reader, was that readers aren’t shown much of the characters’ inner lives. There’s work involved for the reader, looking between the lines to try and figure out how Huang Zixia feels about something or what Li Shubai is thinking, but it works.
I would definitely recommend this for a fan of historical mysteries or for someone who is interested in something different from the more easily found Regency setting. And it’s the first in a four-book series, so there’s plenty more to come! I, for one, am eager to see what happens next in Huang Zixia’s story.