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Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong

In Red Mandarin Dress, Qiu Xiaolong’s fifth Inspector Chen novel, he’s finally pulled of a brilliant blend of east and west. Not that the first four Inspector Chen novels, all set in 1990s Shanghai, weren’t good, but the latest is a consummate blend of the Chinese approach to crime solving and western noir crime fiction—Raymond Chandler on The Bund. Inspector Chen aficionados already know the poet-detective well and his milieu of 1990s fast changing Shanghai. Chen is a master of balancing the concerns of the Party to keep a lid on things with the shenanigans of the Mr Big Bucks new tycoons, gangsters and corrupt officials as well as the hostesses, whores and the easily duped who become their victims.

Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong
Red Mandarin Dress, Qiu Xiaolong (Hodder & Stoughton General Division, July 2008; Minotaur Books, February 2009)

In his latest outing Chen is once again in the multi-layered world of the new urban China as dodgy property speculators, rapacious officials and get-rich-quick conmen converge. But this time the answer may lie in the past and while it’s OK (in reality and in the book) to cut down a weed that grows too tall every now and again, however well connected, delving into the Cultural Revolution is a no-no. In the book, as in China today, the horrors, persecutions and vendettas of that period are swept under the carpet—no South African or Northern Ireland-style truth and reconciliation commissions for China. And, as Qiu suggests, the result of this collective state-sponsored amnesia are festering dreams of vengeance that remain repressed but may just, now and again, boil over into murder.

As well as modern Chinese history, Chen himself gets a fuller fleshing out in this book too. Sometimes its hard to know what keeps him on the straight and narrow—he doesn’t have the good time girls or the bottle the way so many other detectives do in fiction—he just has poetry, and that seems to be enough for him.

Qiu has also ramped up his portrayal of Shanghai as a dystopia—a hyper-real city where grievances and petty jealousies drive peoples’ actions, where cash is king, connections essential and much of life is lived in the shadows. In this sense Qiu’s Shanghai is becoming more and more like Chandler’s Los Angeles—a city of two communities where the honest and hardworking rarely interact with the corrupt and feckless—a city of day and night, good and bad, rich and poor. And perhaps the modern Shanghai is most comparable with Chandler late 1930s LA with all the attendant hucksters, hopeful migrants and venal power structures. It’s a good comparison and leaves those of us confirmed Inspector Chen fans waiting desperately for more.

Paul French is author North Korea: Paranoid Peninsula. He writes regularly on Chinese and North Korean economics and politics for a wide variety of publications.