Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong


DELICOUS, and sometimes stomach-turning, Shanghai food is a central thread in Red Mandarin Dress.
A serial killer is murdering vulnerable women, leaving their bodies sprawled in pornographic poses, wearing demure mandarin dresses.
Comrade Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau skips neatly aside when he's asked to take charge of another investigation.
A radical lawyer is taking on a corrupt builder, and Chen knows the Party bosses are likely to be up to their pockets in the building deal.
He explains that he's involved in taking a degree in Chinese literature - can't see that one going down well in Phoenix Park - and hasn't got the time to give the case his attention.
But behind the scenes, Chen starts work on both cases.
Qui uses tasty literary references, and a deep knowledge of the history and experience of the Cultural Revolution, to paint Chen's investigation. It's a riveting story.
The mandarin dress was a symbol of the decadent old China: in the 1960s, the ideal was the Iron Woman, dressed in her Mao suit and muscled up to be a star worker.
A beautiful violinist became both the icon of the revolution - in a photo showing her with her pretty son, gazing into the future - and a subject of blackmail by the bullies who had come to the fore with the Red Guards.
Chen unwinds the threads leading into the past to find the killer, in a story that tells you hard facts about both new-capitalist and revolutionary China.
As Chen and his colleagues find the killer and set up the trap, he quotes the Chinese poets. "When the fictional is real, the real is fictional; where there's nothing, there's everything," he murmurs.
He never said a truer word.

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