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'Red Mandarin Dress' by Qiu Xiaolong

By Andrew McNulty

If you like a crime novel but find them all a bit same-same, try this one for something different. Inspector Chen is a detective in modern-day Shanghai. Not for him the fancy forensics, eye-watering karate moves or nail-biting car chases of his American counterparts. Jackie Chan, he ain't. In fact, for the first part of this story, Inspector Chen is not even the one investigating the serial murders of young women found dead in identical red mandarin dresses. (We call them cheongsam sometimes in these parts.)

While Chen's offsider, Detective Yu (and his wife), try to figure out which heinous individual is behind the shocking killings, the inspector is doing a paper on the deconstruction of love in classical Chinese literature. As he ponders what Confucius says while lying poolside in a vacation village following a small overdose in the coffee department, the investigation goes on without him.

When an undercover policewoman turns up as the latest victim in a red mandarin dress, Inspector Chen slips back into the city and takes quiet control of the case. Using his intellectual and not so intellectual contacts in Shanghai, he traces the killer and in a very poetic way the history of modern China.

You need a bit of patience if you're used to a romp on the crime-solving front. Chen stops often to translate love poems but Red oandarin Dress paints an engrossing picture of the new China that has emerged as a result of the old regime and the generation that has inhabited both. The story was inspired by the author's own experience as a small boy, when his family home was raided and ransacked at the start of the Cultural Revolution. His mother had a nervous breakdown and he was left like a puppy trembling beside her.

His mother never recovered but he did. Although somewhat scarred, he moved to the USA and lived more or less happily ever after, writing poems and novels. Qiu Xiaolong's fictional puppy of Red oandarin Dress takes quite a different tack.

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