Qiu Xiaolong, Red Mandarin Dress (2007)

Downtown Shanghai in the 2000s: in the midst of busy traffic, the body of a dead young woman is discovered among shrubberies, naked but for an elegant 1960s style Mandarin dress, torn so as to reveal the woman’s sex. If it wasn’t shocking enough for the glittering but politically-correct Chinese megacity, another body is discovered a week later with the same MO.

The police can’t acknowledge a serial killer for political reasons (we’re still in a socialist country, after all, serial killers are Western decadent capitalist countries’ bane) and for prestige reasons (Shanghai is the showcase of China’s successful economic development), but they put their best team on the case. Unfortunately, Inspector Chen has just taken some time off to devote himself to a thesis in classical Chinese literature. So his assistant steps forward and takes the lead. But in a country where the police has to walk a fine line between the Party’s shadowy connections and its official fight against corruption, where criminal profiles are based on socialist concepts of class and where psychology is seen as a foreign discipline not applicable to Chinese people, the investigation is not your usual police procedural.

I was sometimes annoyed by Qiu’s systematic approach, especially in the middle section; he takes time to explain Chinese concepts and psychology and he’s so step-by-step that I sometimes got the feeling that I knew where he was going – an illusion that proved right up to a certain point – he still has a few twists and turns to surprise the most blasé reader. But I can’t deny my pleasure to see Shanghai’s contemporary contradictions so finely and realistically depicted. The eager and cynical “three-accompanying girls” (san-pei nüren), who by profession are supposed to “help” customers with meals, dances and songs in restaurants and night-clubs, but mostly provide them sexual services. The older people living in communal apartments where petty neighborhood committees settle scores of old domestic grudges. The old communist employees lost in the emerging society and who grieve for old ideals and quickly disappearing landscapes of this fast-paced city. All these and more are perfectly credible characters whom you could meet in Shanghai streets.

With Inspector Chen on the sideline, Qiu attempts daring parallels between Freudian concepts of psychoanalysis and Chinese traditions as seen in classical novels, poetry and tales. Many Chinese friends of mine contend that Oedipus complex is essentially a Western invention, but Qiu, a long-time exiled Chinese in the US, seems to disagree and puts it on center stage. The most surprising part is the resolution (I’m trying hard not to divulge anything important), because Qiu is aware that Chinese police wouldn’t be able to indict and put such a serial killer to trial. So Qiu’s solution is both inventive and plausible, if a bit far-fetched.

Mr. Smithereens received another Qiu Xiaolong’s mystery for Christmas, so I have another installment lined up for 2010!


4 thoughts on “Qiu Xiaolong, Red Mandarin Dress (2007)

  1. read some of qiu xiaolong’s inspector chen series before. i particularly liked the first in the series, death of a red mandarin. i loved the way socio-political intricacies (especially those related to the party) and insights into chinese cultural practices are brought to the fore in the midst of the criminal investigations… offers the reader an expressive realist unraveling of the economic inequalities and grotesque types found in today’s “modernizing” china. quite an indictment of the “capitalist road” deng and his successors chose to travel.

    wishing you more enjoyable and insightful readings for 2010! 🙂

    • Yes, death of a mandarin was memorable. I agree with your analysis. I wonder if Qiu’s critical view would be very acceptable in China. I don’t know if his books are translated or sold there but somehow I doubt it. When I lived there it didn’t seem that people read many mysteries at all, but I may be mistaken.
      Best literary wishes for 2010 to you too!

  2. Pingback: James Church, A Corpse at the Koryo (2006) « Smithereens

  3. Pingback: Qiu Xiaolong, Don’t Cry Tai Lake (20 « Smithereens

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