As with Death of a Red Heroine the book opens with the discovery of a young woman who has been murdered. What makes the case here unusual is that she was found wearing a red mandarin dress that has had side slits ripped and several double-fish-shaped bosom buttons left undone.
The police are left reeling for it is the second murder of a young woman in a short time who has been dumped in a public location wearing a red mandarin dress and no other clothes.
There is a media frenzy about the red mandarin dress murders. Even in the highly controlled culture of Communist China the authorities are forced to acknowledge there is a serial killer in the City. Until the economic changes serial murders had been kept out of the press but once Chinese media were forced to sustain themselves economically they look as avidly to murder as any Western media.
A serial murderer is not acceptable to the Party and there is enormous pressure on the police to find the killer.
Chief Inspector Chen Cao is not interested in the case. He is on a short leave. He has enrolled in an MA program for Classical Chinese Literature at Shanghai University. His first paper is due shortly and he is going to use his time away from the office to work on the paper.
After looking at several Chinese short stories he has decided upon a paper which will delve into similarities in how women are portrayed in love stories over several hundred years.
His love of poetry is a daily part of his life, whether on work or at home. Chen continues to quote favoured lines. On a textile worker growing old swiftly:
Soon, the splendor fadesfrom the flower. There’s no stopping
the chill rain, or the shrill wind.
While Chen is trying to focus on his paper his dutiful aide, Comrade Yu, is racing around trying to find information. Yu’s wife, Peiqin, searches for information on the distinctive red mandarin dresses placed upon the victims.
When Chen leaves Shanghai for a rest Yu is distraught. He has always leaned heavily on Chen to guide him investigations.
When Chen does return the investigation takes him back into the cruel days of the Cultural Revolution. Terrible actions were taken in the name of the Party.
During the book I was diverted by the amazing descriptions of food. Chen describes soup buns:
“….the soup in the bun comes from the pork skin jelly mixing with the stuffing. In a steamer over the stove, the jelly turns into hot liquid. You have to bite carefully, or the soup will splash out, scalding your tongue.”
At the same time I was stunned by some of the dishes. I can do no more for description than list one item as live monkey brains.
Xiaolong writes subtle mysteries taking the reader into Chinese society past and present. His sleuth is skilled at dealing with highly political superiors. Every action must consider what the Party would want done.
The ending was one of the most poignant I have read in some time. I look forward to reading more Chief Inspector Chen books.
My next post will provide some thoughts on a red mandarin dress. It is a striking sensual dress. (Sept. 13/13.)
****My personal connection is an affection for the beauty and power of the poetry in the series. I do not read books of poetry but I love poetry with great imagery and flow of words.
****Earlier posts involing Qiu Xiaolong are:
Death of a Red Heroine (Second best of 2009 fiction); (2011) - "X" is for Qui Xiaolong; (2011) - A Case for Two Cities; (2012) - "X" is for Qiu Xiaolong Again; (2012) - A Loyal Character Dancer;