Sunday, August 02, 2009

106 (2009 #31). Flower Net

by Lisa See

My local book club read this book because we’d so enjoyed author Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. Published eight years earlier in 1997 as See’s first novel and second book over all, Flower Net is the first of what have come to be called “Red Princess” mystery-thrillers. All three books feature Chinese Ministry of Public Security inspector Liu Hulan and American attorney David Stark.

The story takes place in the first couple months of 1997, beginning with the discovery of the bodies of the American ambassador’s son in Beijing and the son (a “Red Prince”) of a wealthy Chinese businessman in a boat adrift with illegal immigrants off the coast of Los Angeles. Stark and Liu are paired up to investigate the murders and associated crimes including smuggling of bear bile, a traditional Chinese medicinal. It’s a pairing that brings the two former lovers (when she was working for an American law firm) back together. David has always carried a torch for Hulan, and can’t understand why she left him so unexpectedly years before.

See does a wonderful job with her descriptions of places and life in China and her deft weaving in of Chinese history. Hulan is a fascinating character, who was named by her parents for a Chinese teenager who died in the revolution in 1947. The plot is intriguing but invites one to suspend belief, as I don’t think it’s very realistic that the Communist Chinese of that era would be so cooperative with the American government.

The book gets its title from a statement by Hulan on page 152 of the hardbound edition, when asked by David what they should do next:
”In China what I would do is cast a flower net....This method of fishing goes back many centuries. The flower net is a round, hand-woven net with weights on the edges. The fisherman throws it out into the air, where it opens like a flower, settles on the surface of the water, sinks to the dark depths, and traps everything within its circumference.,,,We’ll follow the money, but we’ll also look at everything that comes in contact with our net.”

In an interview with Ron Hogan in 1996, See said she got the idea for the book through her husband, Dick"
"a lawyer who represents many foreign governments, including China. We had been traveling there periodically for his cases. One time, we were there for a case he was working on for the Bank of China, which is like the U.S. Treasury but is also their bank. A man had stolen fifty million dollars from the Bank of China, and they hired Dick to find him and the money.

He was working not only with the Bank of China, but with people in the Ministry of Public Security, the people responsible for Tiananmen, and occasionally I'd have the weird experience of being out at dinner or in karaoke bars with these people. Two things struck me. One was the usual notion of the banality of evil, and the other was that I had access to material that almost nobody else had, watching these people and hearing about their internal operations. And I realized there was a great book in those two ideas."

The book has some surprises at the end that make me want to read the next two books in the series, The Interior and Dragon Bones, to learn more (from See’s extensive research) about China during this era, and what happens to David and Hulan.

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