Red Mandarin Dress

Qiu Xialong is a Shanghai-born writer now living in the United States and, given the absence of a named translator, I am assuming that he writes in English. I picked this up as part of my holiday reading, as I am woefully unread in Chinese fiction and I was particularly intrigued by how the detective genre might translate into a Chinese context. Red Mandarin Dress is in fact the fifth novel in a series featuring Inspector Chen of the Shanghai Police, this time investigating the murder of a series of women, whose bodies are left in public locations dressed in very expensive red mandarin dresses. Inevitably, I suppose, there are potential problems in setting a detective story, which genre relies on a particularly Western notion of justice and also a particular set of signs/clues for the reader to identify and interpret, in the context of a society with a seemingly very different set of judicial priorities and cultural symbols that I, for one, am unfamiliar with (such as the cultural significance of the red mandarin dress or the complete unfamiliarity with Western psychology, which underpins much Western detective fiction). But the author handles these tensions extremely well and uses them to his advantage. He is very good at giving the reader enough information without it feeling clunky and overwritten. Additionally, the China that is portrayed here is a country in the midst of change, coming to terms with an acceptance of Western-style capitalism that must seem as alien to most of its population, as some of the food eaten within the pages of the novel (and I suspect he may be teasing us a little here!) seems to us. The very notion of cultural clashes and contraditions lies at the heart of this. In fact, this is so much the case that I found myself enjoying this aspect of the book more than I felt myself driven along by the tension of narrative. I wasn’t carried along by the story so much here – by which  mean it wasn’t so much of an old-fashioned page-turner – but it has left me wanting to read the first of these novels, which is now sitting on my shelf waiting to be read.

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