Complex detective builds following

Qiu Xiaolong’s complex, harassed Shanghai detective, Inspector Chen, is rapidly building a following in the West and Red Mandarin Dress is the fifth of the Inspector Chen novels.

This volume finds Chen more ambivalent that ever about his police career. In the previous book, A Case of Two Cities, he caught the backwash from a nasty corruption case. Now he flirts with university literature studies. They keep him out of the office, providing a welcome lower profile. A qualification might offer Chen promotion — or even an alternative career. Thus when evidence of a serial killer in the city begins to mount, it is Chen’s deputy, the more pragmatic Detective Yu, who initially leads the investigation. But the case could embarrass the authorities and Chen is reluctantly pulled back to work.

Each of the Chen novels has built on the last, not only in plotline, but also in a growing sophistication of structure. Chen’s literary studies in this book provide the basis for an exploration of the role and image of women in Chinese society, feudal, communist and contemporary.

Extracts from the novels and poems Chen reads as he constructs his first student essay form a counterpoint to the forensic detail of the killer’s obsessions: he clothes his victims in traditional style, but each time disfigures the immaculate dress of the title. This provides a metaphor for attitudes to women past and present. In the romantic and heroic literature Chen studies women are blamed for distracting men from their duty; in the reflections of old Communists the same refrain. Chen is aware of the hypocrisy, but cannot shake off his own ambivalence towards a woman friend who used to entertain in a karaoke bar. Yu’s resourceful wife, Peiquin, experiences the current version of the double standard as a bar girl shares her own story over lunch.

As in a fable by Umberto Eco, the discourses of tradition and contemporary sociology twine together, backgrounding and foregrounding each other, jostling for attention like unquiet spirits. The novel is a scrapbook of intensely visual images — clothing catalogues; similes in a poem; mannequins in shop windows; old photographs; crime-scene sketches — each of which refocuses Chen’s view of the crime. The inspector comes close to breakdown as he tries to balance the demands of study and work, the shadows of past and present.

This is Qiu’s most intricate and unsettling work to date. It marks a transition from novels that were not only tightly plotted detective stories, but also sharply self-aware narratives of modern China. With Red Mandarin Dress, the writer’s gaze shifts penetratingly inwards, from the life of the Shanghai streets to the life of emotions and memories, and the ways both garish neon and smoking incense now light up the scars of the past.

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.

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