Originally featured in the eighth issue of Beijing Literature in 2015, this novella later came to be published by Shanghai Literature & Art Press in January 2016. This novella is quite original in that it contributes so many vivid urban characters to contemporary literature such as health care workers and designated drivers.
Zhang Xin is a writer with a keen eye for the pains of our generation. From this novella, we can see two sides of society: one where prosperity and brilliance cover the world, and one where tension and cynicism lurk with growing hostility. At one point, humanity’s pent up stress transforms into piercing hostility in the face of desire. Just as the author mentioned in this novella, “in this particular era, everybody is struggling against themselves.” In this age of overflowing hostility, some are commendable in their steadfast, tranquil stance against it all – “there are always some stupid people who devote themselves to their work, who choose integrity, kindness, concentration and fairness.” And what’s found lurking beneath the surface of a straightforward medical case is unexpected; yet the light at the end of the tunnel is always there to comfort us, even with the book’s unexpected but reasonable conclusion. On top of this, love’s beauty adds weight to this novel, as reflected by longing in times of difficulty and the innocent, reserved feelings shared between Su Erji and Little Zhou.
Different threads run through the novella; the case moves forward in a zig-zag pattern where peoples’ relations are gradually unveiled. And with this artful design, the novel comes across as both charming and marvelous. However, this novella is not impressive for the plot itself, but rather the unintended details and descriptions that lie on its outskirts. In the descriptions of materials and character personalities, you can find a complex and vivid urban life, revealing the strong independence of Zhang Xin’s novel. The characters are all urbanites who enjoy themselves at tea houses, Yohji Yamamoto clothing stores, antique book stores, symphony concerts and other peculiar places around town. And as the foxtrot plays through, these specific details become prominent and even significant to the plot. The novella is praiseworthy in its soft focus on the mundane as well as the factors involved in life’s various aspects.
The critic He Shaojun pointed out that Zhang Xin’s writing is always brimming with noble qualities, and though her writing focuses on secular life, she always maintains a longing for nobility. The Foxtrot Murder is just the same, and what’s worth mentioning is that the two policemen in this novel become kindred spirits sharing the same ideal of nobility despite their different family backgrounds. Little Zhou’s nobility has a tint of elegance, while Uncle Ren’s, loftiness. They are just like a duet of the violin and clarinet. Never before have noble images of policemen gained a place in the garden of contemporary Chinese literature.
Zhang Xin is a writer from Haimen, Jiangsu Province who graduated from the Department of Chinese Language and Literature in Peking University. She was drafted into the army in 1969, working successively as a medical orderly, a nurse, cultural troupe writer, reference room official for Yangcheng Evening News, editor of Guangdong province’s May magazine, and a professional writer at Guangzhou Literary and Art Creation Research Institute. She became a member of the China Writers Association after graduating from Peking University.
Her early works include the novel Single-minded Pursuit, several novella collections such as Invincible Time, Love’s End, So What About Love?, You Have No Reasons Not to Go Insane and four volumes of Collected Works of Zhang Xin. Some of her works have been adapted for film and television such as the novella With You At Dawn (film) and Invincible Time (TV series). Her novella Certainly Not by Coincidence was also important, winning second prize for The First Shanghai Excellent Novels and Novellas and Zhuang Zhongwen Literatuer Prize in 1995.
Zhang is known for her brilliant writing of urban romance, The Foxtrot Murder being her newest work after going on hiatus.
The background of this story is set in Guangzhou, a city in southern China. Two policemen, Uncle Ren and Little Zhou, are discussing a homicide case at a tea house, their conversation going roughly as follows:
Wang was 78 years old, and was quite fit and active for his age, despite suffering through dementia. However, he suddenly died in the hospital one day, the police uncovering the truth behind his death following an autopsy – he suffocated to death due to the health care workers arguing and splitting up into different factions. After the medical dispute was settled, his second son, Little Wang, received compensation from the hospital. In addition, according to their father’s will, Big Wang, the eldest son, was to inherit his appartment while Little Wang would gain possession of his book collection. Being almost spoiled by his father during his lifetime, the rebellious and bossy Little Wang thought the will was a load of hogwash and attempted to seize the property from Big Wang. During the fight that ensued, the mild-tempered Big Wang accidentally killed his little brother.
Later, Uncle Ren and Little Zhou approach a dress designer named Liu the Third, hoping to get more information. Liu and his wife Baobao got married two years ago and have never had sex due to his impotence, but Liu refused to end their marriage. As a result, Baobao in her loneliness started to meet up with her ex-boyfriend on the side, called Duanmu Zhe. Liu the Third could smell something fishy about their relationship, but he decided to remain discreet and find a way to avoid property disputes should they get divorced. He should first find evidence of her dishonesty to back himself up, but he unfortunately didn’t come across any nude pictures for Duanmu Zhe. At this point, the slimming products from Duanmu’s company were found to contain poison, having already killed a few consumers, so Duanmu Zhe disappeared without a trace, and Baobao was nowhere to be found as well.
Little Zhou met Su Erji at the gym, falling in love with her at first sight. On one occasion after a class get-together, he met Su again on his way home, but he didn’t find the chance to express his admiration for her. But Little Zhou would often visit the hospital because of Wang’s case and one day when he helped a child named Daxi find his way back home, his mother just happened to be Su! This moment allowed them to finally get to know each other. Meanwhile, Liu the Third and Su Erji met again, having been a perfect match for each other back in university. Su had been fairly well-off, but her father’s bankruptcy left her in dire straits. After learning of her father’s bankruptcy while she was on a trip to France, she had to start working part-time to support herself. To make matters worse, she found herself pregnant. Liu didn’t want to be separated from Su and his own son Daxi anymore, so he proposed to her.
A small amount of activity was seen in Baobao’s bank account, and following this clue, the two policemen succeeded in tracking her down. But she was not with Duanmu Zhe. It then dawned on Uncle Ren that Liu is the real suspect in this case – he began investigating all of Liu’s associates and discovered that Liu’s uncle has rights over the crematory. Following, they looked at the cremation records to find a secret hidden within them: a young man of Duanmu Zhe’s age had been cremated twice in two different places.
But unfortunately, Uncle Ren was shot dead when chasing an escaped convict. At this time, Little Zhou found an important clue in the old man’s diary: Wang’s book collections were actually worth much more than the house he had been hankering for, for he actually had a preference to his younger son. But the cat had already been let out the bag, leading to a tragic ending. The old man’s wife was dying, his second son was dead and his eldest son was facing severe punishment. Liu the Third and his uncle confessed their crime: Two years ago, Liu made an appointment with Duanmu Zhe and killed him while his uncle used his power to cremate Duanmu behind the scenes. It was with this that Liu’s dreams were shattered, and somehow at the same time, Su Erji found herself in love with Little Zhou…