Judge Dee is looking forward to getting out of the Chinese Metropolitan Court of Justice. He’s tired of only seeing cases on paper, processing routine documents and copies and has requested a recently vacated district judge position. It doesn’t matter that the Magistrate position will be in the district of Peng-lai, on the seacoast far from the capitol. It doesn’t even matter that the position opened due to the murder of the prior judge, discovered in his library with the doors and windows locked. Though his two friends and co-workers try to convince him otherwise, he remains excited:
“Now he said eagerly, “think of it, a mysterious murder to solve, right after one has arrived at one’s post! To have an opportunity right away for getting rid of dry-as-dust theorizing and paper work! At last I’ll be dealing with men, my friends, real living men!”
Judge Dee is about to get what he asked for and more. There are honorable highwaymen, prostitutes, Korean nationalists, mysterious monks, supercilious scholars and tormented minor officials. Rumors abound with sightings of the supernatural: the ghost of the former judge and a man-eating were-tiger. Though certainly these things existed to the Chinese people in 663 A.D., the Judge feels the mundane must be ruled out before the supernatural is blamed.
I had only read one other Judge Dee mystery to date, and I found this one even more enjoyable than the first. Part of it may have been the erudite and comprehensive introduction by Donald F. Lach that provided both biography of the author, the historical Judge Dee tales in Chinese literature (think something like Paul Bunyan folk tales) and van Gulik’s approach to his version. But I think more likely is that it is a genuinely interesting mystery, wrapped in the atmosphere of historical China, much like Agatha Christie’s mysteries provide insight into the local English culture of that time. As Lach points out, “the smallest items–ink stones, nails in a Tartar shoe, the gongs of Taoist monks, door knobs–are brought into the stories at strategic points… to enlighten the Western reader about these strange objects and their function.” I was afraid these details might intrude, but instead they added depth to the tale. Lach’s insight also made me glad that Van Gulik chose to tailor his tale slightly to Western sensibilities and not reveal the criminal’s identity in the beginning (talk about setting the concept of spoilers on its head!)
Overall, a fascinating tale. I’ll be looking for some of the other stories written by Van Gulik, although I might focus on the ones written after 1958 as they deviate more from the traditional Chinese Judge Dee tales.