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Red Mandarin Dress by Xiaolong Qiu

Red Mandarin Dress (2007)

by Xiaolong Qiu

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On a cold morning late in the year the body of a young woman has been found on the safety island in the middle of a busy Shanghai road. Worker Master Huang sees her first as he jogs in the early morning. His mind had been occupied by the changes around him, particularly the substitution of a Starbucks for a former Worker and Farmer eatery where the food was cheap and tasty intended for the working class. Now the vistas are filled with mansions owned by what are known as the Big Bucks, the new wealthy class. Huang mutters the slogan “Socialist China gone to the capitalist dogs “ as he reflects on the changes he has seen in his seventy years.

The young woman is found wearing no more than a red mandarin dress, with the bosom unbuttoned and the side slits ripped and torn. She is posed in a way to suggest that the killer had molested her and that the motive was sexual. Inspector Cao Chen is engaged on a case of real estate corruption and at the same time he is trying to pursue his literature studies. The case is turned over to Detective Yu Guangming who is Chen’s partner.
t takes some time to identify the victim and everybody is startled when a second young woman is found dumped and displayed in a similar fashion. A serial killer is the first one of his kind in Shanghai and the public is stirred by the loss of two women in their flowering age.

Chen and Yu work frantically trying to understand the significance of the dress, the victims and the sites where the bodies were dumped. In this story the historical background add tremendously to the depth of the story and all the threads come together beautifully. ( )
  Condorena | Apr 2, 2013 |
Much More Than Just a Mystery Novel Set in Shanghai: To the ranks of such modern-day fictional detectives as Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko and P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh, add Qiu Xiaolong's Inspector Chen. RED MANDARIN DRESS presents Qiu's irrepressible Shanghai police inspector in his fifth crime novel along with his familiar cast of side characters from those earlier works. Like Arkady Renko, Chen is a loner and a thinker, a dogged deducer and a clever intuitionist whose case approach marks him as idiosynchratic among his peers. Like Renko, Chen lives alone, dresses somewhat lackadaisically, appeases his superiors just enough so he can ignore them, and generally follows the proverbial beat of his own drummer. Like Adam Dalgliesh, Chen is a literary detective, well educated and given to studying and writing poetry.

RED MANDARIN DRESS opens with the appearance of a young woman's murdered body, found posed in a flowerbed on a very public Shanghai street. The dead woman, Jasmine, was a hotel worker, living an utterly nondescript life, but she is found wearing a torn red mandarin dress, usually called a qipao or cheongsam, in the classic Chinese style: high collar, full length, body hugging, side slit to the thigh. Hers is a vintage design, however, dating back to the days before the Cultural Revolution. Exactly one week later, another young woman is found murdered, dressed the same way and left in another very public Shanghai location. Another week passes, and a third body appears, and then a fourth, one of Chen's associates who had agreed to work undercover. At the same time Shanghai is gripped by its first publicly reported serial murder case, Inspector Chen is asked to follow another case involving public corruption in a real estate development. He is also experiencing a sort of dual existential and career crisis. Should he continue as a police detective or return to his first intellectual love, Tang Dynasty poetry, for which he is trying to write a paper analyzing the treatment of women in three such poems?

As the detective story moves inexorably toward its climactic face-off between Chen and the murderer, Qiu treats the reader with a fascinating introduction to Tang Dynasty poetry, a core element of Chinese culture. He juxtaposes Chen's paper's theme of "thirsty illness," a literal reference to diabetes but a metaphorical reference to romantic love, with the killer's own thirsty illness for revenge. Along the way, Qiu inserts additional elements of decidedly non-Chinese Freudian psychological theory into Chen's search for a serial killer's motives. Chen is no Sherlock Holmes, magically pulling a rabbit out of a hatful of clues; rather, he is more bloodhound, catching a faint scent and following it determinedly to its eventful conclusion.

What makes Qiu Xiaolong's stories stand out as more than just mystery novels is his exemplary folding of Chinese history abd culture into his work. References to Tang Dynasty poetry and the mass criticism of Wang Guangmei (as wife of President Liu Shaoqi, China's "First Lady") during the Cultural Revolution bring elements of those eras to life and introduce the reader to their place in the Chinese psyche. Inspector Chen's interactions with other characters exemplify such fascinating aspects of Chinese life as the importance of connections (guangxi) and the exchanging of favors. Qiu delves as well into the mystique of Chinese/Asian women as threatening to men, the predatory femme fatale. The role of food in Chinese culture also plays a major role in RED MANDARIN DRESS, including the book's climax that takes place over what has to be one of literature's strangest dinner menus.

Readers may want to take special note of this book's dedication: "To my elder brother, Xiaowei - but for luck, what happened to him during the Cultural Revolution could have happened to me." It is more than coincidental that this line repeats itself at the end of Chapter 30. Qiu Xiaolong, who has lived in the United States since 1989 and writes his stories in English, lived through those dark days of Mao's rule. As he writes on his website, his family had a 1960's magazine with a photo of a young boy and his mother, dressed in a red qipao, looking off into a glorious horizon above the caption, "Mother, Let's Go There." Qiu notes that he sometimes identified himself with the young boy from that picture and later wondered what happened to mother and son during the Cultural Revolution and beyond. Thus the kernel of the story line for RED MANDARIN DRESS, as much a fascinating literary and cultural study of past and present China as it is a first-rate mystery novel. Highly recommended even for those, like me, who are not avid fans of mystery stories.
2 vote lonepalm | Dec 8, 2011 |
An Inspector Chen mystery based in Shanghai. His books give an i9nsight into a country, which is still communist but, in fact. has embraced capitalism. A country which is rife with corruption at all levels but Inspector Chen is one of the good guys. These murders relate back to the earlier days after World War 2 and the beginnings of the cultural revolution. Good read. ( )
  magentaflake | Dec 3, 2011 |
This is a very interesting book. An accupuncturist from Shanghai recommended that I read it. I have been hooked on detective and mystery novels for a while. This book is interesting in that it is placed in post-Cultural Revolution China of the 1990's. Female bodies begin turning up in public locations, dressed in vintage Red Mandarin-style dresses. Chief Inspector Chen, uses his wits, knowledge of Western psychology and burgeoning use of profiling to solve this case. There is a smaller case he is involved in, and the two become entwined. The reader should beware, there are some very graphic descriptions of food preparation that are not pleasant. They only turn up in a couple of places, but it is not pleasant. Overall, the book is interesting and kept my attention through to the twist at the ending. The author uses the post-Cultural Revolution to his advantage. Also employed is the fact that in Comuninst China, things such as serial killing, profiling and psychology do not "exist." Chief Inspector Chen has to use these in a manner that will not reach the eyes and ears of his superiors. Adding to the twists in the book is the mini-nervous breakdown he suffers. But, this is not a ploy. While recovering, his mind is free to work in the subconcious to sort out the details of the mystery of the Red Mandarin Dress. ( )
  gosherry | Apr 27, 2011 |
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To my elder brother, Xiaowei--
but for luck, what happened to him during the Cultural Revolution could have happened to me.
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Running along West Huaihai Road, his breath foggy under the fading stars, Worker Master Huang counted himself as one of the earliest birds in Shanghai.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312371071, Hardcover)

Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Department is often put in charge of  politically sensitive cases. Having recently ruffled more than a few official feathers, when he is asked to look into a sensitive corruption case he takes immediate action - he goes on leave from work. But while on vacation, the body of a murdered young woman is found in a highly trafficked area and the only notable aspect is that she was redressed in a red mandarin dress. When a second body appears, this time in the People's Park, also in precisely the same kind of red mandarin dress, the newspapers start screaming that Shanghai is being stalked by its first sexual serial killer. With the Party anxious to resolve the murders quickly, Chen finds himself in the midst of his most potentially dangerous and sensitive case to date.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:13 -0400)

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"Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Department is often put in charge of politically sensitive cases. So it is no surprise when he receives a call at home asking him to look into aspects of a sensitive corruption case. Realizing this case is likely to be trouble, and having recently ruffled more than a few official feathers, Chen takes immediate action - and goes on leave from work." "At the same time, a serial killer is apparently stalking Shanghai. The killer's calling card is a series of murdered young women, their bodies left in well-trafficked locations, each of them redressed in precisely the same style of red mandarin dress. With the newspapers screaming about Shanghai's first serial killer, Party officials eager to resolve the murders quickly, and the police under pressure from all sides, something has to give. Despite being officially on leave from the department, Chen finds himself in the midst of his most dangerous and sensitive case to date, one whose roots reach back to the country's tumultuous recent past."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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