Fresh off the case of The Chinese Gold Murders, I was rather looking forward to another of Judge Dee’s adventures. Judge Dee and his retinue are returning from their travels when they are confronted with a terrible storm that will surely dump their carts off the mountainside if they try and shelter in place. The best spot to spend the night is the nearby Morning Cloud Monastery, already on the Judge’s mental list for an upcoming visit for the deaths of three young women. Unfortunately, it’s cold and rainy, and the Judge had caught a cold. There’s nothing quite like reading descriptions of someone’s crankiness, I must say; I found myself growing as grumpy as the Judge with his pounding headache.
“The judge tugged angrily at his beard. The ghostly voice had disturbed him more than he cared to admit. Then he took hold of himself. Probably some monks were talking about him in another room or passage near there. Often the echo played queer tricks in such old building. He stood listening for a while, but did not hear anything. The whispers had ceased.”
Though published in 1961, Van Gulik tried to balance a tale that would appeal to modern mystery tastes with that of more traditional Chinese mystery stories. Traditional stories often relied on supernatural elements, were frequently highly judgemental towards both Taoism and Buddhism and usually gave away the villain at the start. Though Van Gulik avoids going so far as to share the identity of the villain, he does enjoy creating the feel of pre-communist 7th century China.
As the Judge and his retinue arrive at the monastery, the Judge glimpses a man throttling a one-armed, naked woman, but before he really understand what he is seeing, the shutters crash close and he is unable to see more. As he tries to find the room where the possible crime is committed, the monastery is celebrating its two hundred and third birthday, and the monks are enjoying the work of a performing artist troupe and their bear. Also among the guests are an older established woman who is bringing a charge to the monastery to become a nun. In a move familiar to Shakespeare fans, one of the performers mocks the senior abbot, implying his personal gain from the untimely ‘ascension’ of his predecessor. It doesn’t become a comedy of errors, sadly, so much as a peevish man trying to find a solution to a missing woman, a strange vision and the death of the prior abbot.
This all sounds rather interesting, of course, but various puzzles are solved less by cleverness than blind luck and perseverance.While I did enjoy parts of the tour through China past, I think the gestalt didn’t balance out nearly as well as it did in The Gold Murders. It was hard for the writing to overcome the prejudices of the Judge, and of his frustration with the weather and the layout of the monastery. Luckily for the reader, Van Gulik provided both building and floor maps along with cast of characters. What was particularly interesting about the Judge in this one is that while he definitely had a religious intolerance, he was particularly tolerant with unwed relationships and lesbian relationships. Despite all that, I found myself falling asleep unfortunately often for a mystery, so take that for what you will.
The edition I read (combined with the Chinese Maze Murders) also had a number of plates drawn by Van Gulik “in the style of 16th century Chinese illustrated blockprints,” in Ming dynasty style, but since block printing is a rather simplistic style, it didn’t feel like they brought any depth to the story.