Qiu Xiaolong’s Red Mandarin Dress is the seventh in the series of best-selling Inspector Chen mysteries, and “Chief Inspector Chen Cao” is a mesmerizing sleuth. He is insecure, self-indulgent and prone to symptoms of anxiety (like Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell’s sleuth.) He likes poetry and literary analysis, and his police department colleagues cannot quite understand him.
But Chen is also kind-hearted, highly observant, intuitive, persistent and clever. No reader of a mystery can ask for more, other than a gripping plot and dramatic denouement, which the novel certainly has.
Red Mandarin Dress is gripping and the images which Qiu Xiaolong creates stay with you long after you have put down the book – for instance the “cruel food” and what it means. The language is fluent, elegant, and exotic settings and characters are depicted with just enough explanation so as to appear self-explanatory, not pontificating. Qiu Xiaolong published his first novel two years after he landed in America, and the American influence shows in his language and in his mastery of the form of the detective novel. He does not flinch from criticism of the less salubrious aspects of Chinese history, and he can do so freely, since he now lives in the US.
Killer’s calling card
The “red mandarin dress” refers to the Chinese cheongsam also known as the qipao (/ˈtʃiːpaʊ/). The dress, of Manchu Dynasty origin, is somewhat controversial, and it has been viewed during the centuries that it has been worn, as both liberating (and functional) and overtly sexy and bourgeois. It has been worn by both men and women.
The most well-known form of the dress, is form-fitting, high-necked, closely fitted and often short-sleeved, with the skirt portion slit partway up the side, usually made of silk or cotton. It was known as the mandarin gown during the 1920s and 1930s, when it was modernized by Chinese socialites and high society women in Shanghai. The 1949 Communist Revolution curtailed the popularity of the cheongsam and other fashions in Shanghai, but the Shanghainese emigrants and refugees brought the fashion to Hong Kong and Taiwan where it has remained popular.
In the novel, a serial killer is stalking the young women of Shanghai, and leaving an eye-catching and provocative calling card, which is to display the victims’ bodies in iconic red mandarin dresses, making a political statement. With the newspapers screaming about Shanghai’s first serial killer, Party officials anxious for a quick resolution, and the police under pressure from all sides. It is at this point that the clever but also philosophical Chief Inspector Chen Cao is brought in to handle the crisis and catch the killer.
The killer is sort of poking a finger in the eye of the Communist party with the repeated use of the dress, and is also saying that his victims are both middle-class and immoral. Those are clues that Inspector Chen uses to track the killer down.