Take a Shakespeare problem play, steep it in Chinese myth and add a dash of lethal mayhem and you might come close to approximating Eight Skilled Gentleman.
Master Li and Number Ten Ox are attending the public execution of Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu as imperial witnesses, despite Master Li’s well known dislike of formality. When the execution is interrupted by a dying vampire ghoul carrying a half-gnawed head, Master Li realizes there’s something strangely aristocratic about the victim that requires further investigation. They discover the rest of the victim in the Forbidden City, and after consulting with the sainted Celestial Master, are concerned the saint just confessed to the crime. But events turn out far weirder than Master Li suspects, and solving the crime will require investigating smugglers, traveling with a scarred puppeteer and his lovely shaman daughter, and tracking down mystical creatures and myths that are almost three thousand years old.
“One assumes [the artists] were half mad, and they honored their gods by carving deities in death agonies. You’re looking at an unparalleled psychological self-portrait of an exhausted race, teetering upon the edge of extinction, but don’t you see the wonder of our recent experiences? Some of the old gods were sure to survive.”
Almost too complicated to explain yet extremely simple on the surface, Hughart has truly produced a work of art. There is the seemingly straightforward investigation driving the plot, shaded with social commentary along the way (and don’t even kid yourself that Hughart is only talking about ancient Chinese culture). There is side illumination of the history of the Chinese people, and their own myths about the cultural absorption/conflict with indigenous groups. There is outright silliness, particularly with the foodie to end all foodies (literally), Sixth Degree Hosteler Tu, or the time that Master Li impersonates a grave ghoul.
“Somehow or other he got his hands on one of your memoirs!” He swiftly scanned the chicken tracks. “Usual critical comments!” he yelled. “Clotted construction, inept imagery, mangled metaphors, and so on!”
But it’s not only the complexly woven themes. Hughart plays around more than ever with the narrative. In the beginning, Master Li shares letter from a reader accusing Number Ten Ox of purple prose (no self-mocking there). The festive atmosphere of the square is conveyed in groups of shouting (“Sha la jen la!” “Hao! Hao! Hao!”). Poetry is read. The tale of a weak noble is demonstrated, complete with a broom as sword. A play within a play is performed. Prophetic dreams (as well as priapic ones) are experienced. On two occasions, one with the puppeteer and one with Number Ten Ox, we are treating to Master Li as Greek chorus, leaving me giggling out loud (“Good evening” “That’s the Miao-chia”). The narrative is far more complex than either of the other books. Most of the time it works–it turns out it is usually necessary to understand the plot–but sometimes not at well. Quite honestly, that’s about on par with my Shakespeare experiences–the play-within-a-play device generally annoys.
It’s worth noting that there are a couple of gruesome episodes, with poor Ox standing in for the audience with a heartfelt “Gligghh!” While I had my doubts for the author choice to include such scenes, it did put me in mind of the old, old tales–the one where Cinderella’s sisters chopped off their toes to fit into the glass slipper, or the one where Bluebeard has the locked room with bodies.
“Every historian is faced with a chapter in which he cannot win. If he includes the relevant material he will send his readers screaming into the night, and if he doesn’t include it he isn’t writing history.”
The first time I read, I was suffering from Tired, and as the shenanigans built, I had trouble understanding the dizzying changes in direction. When thinking about my review, I started over and re-read the entire book. Like experiencing Shakespeare again and again, each time through allows me to consider some different aspect, whether plot, emotion or lyricism. Overall, worth the time, clotted construction, inept imagery, mangled metaphors and all.