In his mind's eye, Qiu Xiaolong could have been the little boy in the picture. Many times he's put himself there on the hillside, smiling, holding his mother's outstretched arm and urging her to follow him into the distance. 'It's a picture I first saw many, many years ago,' says Qiu. 'It was during the Cultural Revolution. It left a really deep impression on me as I could identify myself with the child. 'For many years I thought about that picture. What could have happened to that child and to the woman in the Mandarin dress?' In those 'many years' the now 54-year-old Qiu has left his native Shanghai for life in the US and has established himself as a heavyweight in the rough and tumble world of crime fiction thanks to his series of best-selling Inspector Chen Cao novels. It was when thinking of which mystery to throw the good inspector's way next that the picture of the child and his mother - Mother, Let's Go There - came back to him. 'You know, those dresses are now popular again but in the Cultural Revolution they were a symbol of the bourgeois lifestyle,' says Qiu. 'At the beginning of the Cultural Revolution Wang Guangmei [wife of former People's Republic president Liu Shaoqi] was made to stand on the stage in one of those dresses - torn - in an effort to humiliate her. 'When I first saw the picture it was natural for me to say she must be from a certain class. I am from that class and that dress to me is very symbolic.' Qiu's family suffered during the Cultural Revolution - in 1966 Red Guards stormed his family home, confiscating anything they thought reflected a capitalistic lifestyle, including jewellery and books. Qiu's mother suffered a breakdown that night from which he says she never recovered and the incident left a deep impression on him. In many ways, Qiu says, he wanted to use the symbolism of the dress to examine China's recent history and the way his country is heading now. Inspector Chen - looking for a way out of the police force - is studying literature part time but is drawn into a series of murder cases, linked because the victims are all found wearing red Mandarin dresses. As he delves deeper into the case he's forced to examine how history has left its mark on those struggling to come to terms with the new China. Apart from the suspense Qui is able to establish, what makes Red Mandarin Dress a gripping read is the author's attention to detail and his ability to pass subtle social comment through his characters. 'You can see in the main character a man reflecting on what is going on around him, things that are out of his control but he tries in some way to understand. In a way that is me as well,' says Qiu. 'We have a difficult relationship. I understand him. He is a party member and he has a good position. But he has to make some compromise, he is not happy with what he is doing. But I understand that - he has to be realistic and I have to be realistic.' Qiu began his career as a poet and was drawn to the US in 1989 while writing a book about T.S. Eliot. The Tiananmen crackdown - and comments he made afterwards in support of the students - effectively determined his fate and he stayed in the US for the next seven years. 'The first time I went back I was amazed by the changes I saw and I wanted to write a book about a society in transition,' he says. 'But maybe because I had not written novels before I didn't really know how to write about this is in a straightforward manner. But this crime genre provides a structure I could use.' In Inspector Chen, the author has created a troubled man who's not sure of his place in the world. There are obvious parallels to Qiu's own life - his recent trip to Hong Kong to promote the book was his third to China in the past year as he tries to keep up with the changes going on, which he often struggles to understand. 'In China these days I think no one wants to talk about what happened in the 1980s,' he says. 'Even the ordinary people you might meet on the street do not want to talk about it - they are too busy making money. The nation has moved in the direction of making money. I might be old-fashioned but I am not sure this is entirely a good thing.' He hopes to be able to return to Shanghai to live and work one day, but still sees stumbling blocks. 'I have been thinking about [moving back] but there are still problems,' he says. 'I can give you one example: my books have been translated into Chinese and a very important thing for me about these books is they are about Shanghai. But in the Chinese translation they changed the name of the city to 'H'. 'Someone did not want it to be about Shanghai. I could not live there and not write about what I want to write about.'