Red Mandarin Dress: An Inspector Chen Novel, 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.

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