Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Travel guides in disguise | Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong

Photo/The Hobbit
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

-Bilbo Baggins, The Fellowship of the Ring

When I started traveling I used to pick up the appropriate Lonely Planet a day before my journey, quickly surf the Condenast website and I was on my way. I still use the Condenast Traveller to guide me on hotels but other guidebooks have fallen off the wayside as I started to focus on memoirs and novels. For instance in Venice,  I walked the steps of Commissario (Detective) Guido Brunetti as he chased murderers down the Rialto in Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon and was privy to the most lyrical prose as I used Valeri’s A Sentimental Guide to Venice, even more special since I managed to find an 1955 edition printed in Italy in a small bookshop that set me back a thumping 25 Euros. No surprise then that I keep this one close to my heart and NEVER lend it. In this series I will talk about some of the books that have been invaluable guides to me as I navigate foreign roads that go ever on and on…

My guide to Shanghai
Red Mandarin Dress by Qiu Xiaolong
I picked this book up at the Shanghai Museum in People’s square when I felt that the my Lonely Planet was falling short in introducing me to the magnificent city. Inspector Chen is Inspector Dalgliesh’s (see The Lighthouse) brother from another mother in that he is an erudite workaholic who spews poetry at the drop of a magnifying glass and draws no line between his personal and professional life. No surprises there. When he finally decides to take a sabbatical to write a dissertation on a strange concept called Thirsty Illness (because that's how these detectives relax), he is cajoled by the powers-that-be to drop everything and chase down a perplexing murder that is ruffling many a communist feather. The book is part of an acclaimed series featuring the insightful inspector and his sincere sidekick as they try deal with a society struggling to reconcile its newfound power with its old turbulent past. He often refers to his plight as, "One country, two systems.” Here you will get a primer on the Cultural Revolution that is everywhere and yet hidden behind crimson curtains, a glimpse into the eccentric food habits of eating twitching shrimp dipped in broth, a fantastic walking tour through the old city and the bund and the introduction to the man commonly known as ‘Mr Big Bucks’; All while you chase down the killer of a beautiful woman who wore a red mandarin dress. Mystifying sexual innuendos aside, it is a deftly woven novel that uses all the elements of criminal profiling that delves deep into the psychoses of this country's enigmatic social structure. Despite being driven to buy myself a cheongsam, I doubt I will ever be able to look at one or a monkey in the same way again.

Please write to us in the comments box below and tell us about your favorite travel reads. 

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