I mistook this novel for a murder mystery.

It is that, nominally: Chief Inspector Chen Cao and Detective Yu of the Shanghai Police Bureau spend their time investigating the murder of Guan Hongying, a national model worker found dead in an obscure county canal. Chen and Yu dig for clues, interview witnesses, mull over theories about what might have happened — all the while insisting, to themselves and their superiors, that the case is a simple homicide.

Don’t be fooled. The case isn’t simple, and its resolution is not the point.

Death of a Red Heroine intertwines Chinese politics, culture, and history, and like the detectives, my mistake was taking all of these as window dressing for the criminal investigation. In hindsight, I’ve come to conclude that it’s the other way around: the dense tapestry of 1990s China (or at least, Shanghai) is the real story here, and the mystery serves mostly as a rod from which to hang it.

The difference emerges when looking at what questions the novel poses. Unlike typical crime novels, Death of a Red Heroine doesn’t dwell on how the murder was committed, nor does it focus on how to solve the case. Instead, the main challenge here is how to put the perpetrator behind bars.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so it’s safest to say that, while mostly unrelated, all the government hurdles and resistance that Cao and Yu encounter find a fitting capstone in the perpetrator’s identity. Yet who the perpetrator is ultimately doesn’t matter either: it’s what they represent that counts. By delving into the criminal’s psyche, many crime novels try to interrogate the corruption and moral failures of the human spirit; here, however, Xiaolong sidesteps the individual to place those failings within the heart of society and the institutions that run it.

What we get, then, is a portrait of the murderer not as an embodiment of the rot that can fester within us, but as another cog in the much larger assemblages of oppression that we can (and do) construct.

With all this set in a socialist China lurching into “modern times,” Inspector Cao’s heroism takes on a refreshing specificity. If the crime and the criminal are an exploration of society’s failings, then Cao (and Yu) is an argument for the fundamental decency that persists regardless. In a country busy remaking itself — and wondering constantly about what it can and should be — Inspector Chen Cao, with his “modern” sensibilities and his classical Chinese literature, speaks to the hope of what China can become.

Is that the China that emerges when the novel ends? The novel knows better than to present a definitive answer, but it still tries for a satisfying denouement. Pick up the book — if nothing else, you’ll have a great time figuring out if it succeeds.