Red Mandarin Dress
By Qiu Xiaolong; St Martin’s Minotaur; US$24.95
Every Thursday night is the same: A woman is murdered, dressed in a red mandarin dress and dumped in a prominent place in modern Shanghai – the Shanghai of Starbucks, neighborhood committees and women eager to entertain men for the right price.
So begins Red Mandarin Dress, the latest of Qiu Xiaolong’s mystery books featuring Inspector Chen, the renaissance man of Chinese detectives.
Chen is a marvel of a character. A police detective with a passion for literature, when he is not solving crimes he translates Western classics into Chinese. He has a talent for understanding human nature and the rare ability to successfully navigate an oppressive bureaucracy… and there is a hint of the womanizer about him.
He is also very much a Chinese creation. Even when confronting the enemy, there is consideration for the right food and the need to save face.
In addition to exploring Chen’s character traits and his relationship with his younger and more traditional partner Detective Yu, Red Mandarin Dress also examines Shanghai. Qiu devotes much attention to the changes that are taking place in the city and to the people who live in it: The increasing mix of local and foreign, rich and poor, old and new.
Part of that investigation necessitates a trip down memory lane, into the not-so-distant conflicts that have so shaped China’s present, like revolutions – armed, cultural or financial.
Red Mandarin Dress is a little slow at times. Chen is, after all, a reluctant protagonist in this particular adventure and Qiu seems more interested in exploring a subplot threaded by traditional Chinese literature than in bringing him back into the thick of the action.
Even that, however, is part of the appeal because it brings the reader closer to the real experience of China and its people – all under the expert guidance of a writer with deep roots in the city and the country.