Serial slayer’s victims dressed to be killed

MARK SCHREIBER – The Japan Times

RED MANDARIN DRESS by Qiu Xiaolong. New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur,
2007, 320 pp., $24.95 (cloth)
In the latest saga of Police Chief Inspector Chen Cao, Shanghai is
abuzz over the shocking murder of a young woman, whose suffocated
corpse is found in a public place clad in a red qipao (pronounced
CHEE-pow), as “mandarin dress” (aka cheongsam) is called in standard
Chinese.
The victim had worked at a mundane job in a cheap hotel and spent the
rest of her time caring for her enfeebled father, a former cadre
during the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” launched in 1966,
when hordes of youthful radicals were mobilized to purge Chinese
socialism of reformist elements.
When an identically clad victim appears at another location, it’s
clear a serial killer is at work.
This time, however, Inspector Chen is on sabbatical, leaving his
dedicated subordinate Yu Guangming and the other cops to track down
the killer through conventional legwork — with absolutely no results.
The dresses in which the victims are clad offer no useful clues, and
in the mid-1990s, when this story takes place, Chinese police were
skeptical toward the science of criminal profiling and more inclined
to consider political motives.
While by no means a genius sleuth, Chen, by fortuitous circumstance,
happens to be researching a scholarly paper about the tendency to
vilify certain women who figured in Chinese history as vamps who
seduced men. This gives him insights into the crime, and his
unorthodox methods eventually succeed where his colleagues’ failed.
Chen’s investigation leads to an old magazine photograph that depicts
a heartwarming, innocent moment, but one with horrible consequences.
Once again, Qiu Xiaolong provides readers with another gut-wrenching
microcosm of the cultural revolution’s appalling brutality, which not
only brought untold misery to millions in the 1960s, but generated
enduring hatreds leading to murder even decades later.
The melodramatic scene in which the killer is exposed smacks just
slightly of the old British drawing-room mysteries. But “Red Mandarin
Dress” is every bit as exotic as the gourmet meal Chen arranges —
with the torturous preparation of a live creature at the tableside as
the piece de resistance — to sweat the truth out of his suspect. This
is Qiu’s best work to date, artfully interspersing past politics, a
man’s deep-seated psychological trauma and literary scholarship, with
the added bonus of a rare inside view into Chinese family life,
particularly mother-son relationships, during the years of the
Cultural Revolution.
Copyright The Japan Times: Sunday, Nov. 18, 2007

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