Monday, April 7, 2008

Review - Red Mandarin Dress

The night advanced, I awake,
no way to renew my walk
along the old garden:
a tired traveler stranded at the end of the world,
gazing homeward, heartbroken.

The Swallow Pavilion is deserted.
Where is the beauty?
Swallows alone are locked inside, for no purpose.
It is nothing but a dream,
in the past, or at present.

Whoever wakes out of the dream?
There is only a never-ending cycle
of old joy, and new grief.
Someday, someone else,
in view of the yellow tower at night,
may sigh deeply for me.
- "Swallow Pavilion," Su Shi
Very few mysteries feature such a poem, but there is little conventional about the remarkable series of Inspector Chen mysteries written by Qiu Xiaolong, the most recent of which is Red Mandarin Dress (2007). This is the fifth in the series set in Shanghai, and brings us to the mid-1990s.

Let's get to the major negative first. As a mystery, this book comes up short. You don't need to have a degree in criminology, just some experience watching the TV show Criminal Minds, to figure out the basics of the plot very early on. Added to a preposterous coincidence, the facts of the crime and the criminal just don't add up to much. The earlier books in the series were better as crime procedurals.

But the plot isn't the main point of this series. I sense that Qiu chose a policeman as his protagonist more because of his mobility, his freedom to talk to people from different ways of life, than because of any burning desire to write crime dramas. Inspector Chen is an unusual figure, a man torn between the desire for justice and his other life as a poet and translator (no accident that Qiu is a poet and a translator, I should think).

The real fascination here is watching a society in radical transition, as China moves from communism to capitalism, as it attempts to throw off Maoism without accepting collective guilt for the abuses and atrocities under that system. The orderly lines of Confucianism are giving away to the chaotic randomness of free-market economics, even as the bureaucratic forces of authoritarianism attempt to maintain their hold on society. The descriptions of life in Shanghai, as modern high-rise developments coexist with single-family shikumen that have been subdivided into multi-family dwellings, are vivid.

The late film critic Gene Siskel used to say that his favorite movies were those that transported the viewer into a different world. My favorite fictional works work in the same way for me. The difference can come from style (as in the books of James Ellroy) or plot. Red Mandarin Dress takes the reader into a different kind of thought, a world that, while recognizable as similar to ours, is actually quite altered. I don't know that there is an innate Chinese-ness that is so separated from ours, but the turmoil through which that society has gone over the last 50 years has created a mindset that only a skilled author can convey to us. Qiu does that well, and I highly recommend this book.

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