Who knew 7th century China could provide such fertile source material for mysteries? And who knew that it would take a Dutch diplomat to share the style with the West? Not me. The descriptions don’t quite do it justice, and the explanation behind the stories usually add another layer of interest. In this one, Van Gulik regains some of the needed pacing and action of The Chinese Gold Murders, and had me intrigued from chapter one.
Judge Dee has a new post, a border city under periodic threat from the Uyghur tribes. His entourage feels it might be more than a bit rural and possibly a step down in prestige. Their opinion seems confirmed by the populace, who takes no notice of their new judge, leaving only an old, dissatisfied servant to welcome them to dusty and ill-used quarters. Within a day of arrival, the Judge has the story: the town is under the thumb of a thug, albeit a very rich one, who is prone to beating those who can’t come up a bit of coin or free labor. A distraught father beseeches him to find his missing daughter, a son requests Judge Dee to arrest his father’s would-be-murderer, and a disowned widow needs aid in recovering part of her husband’s estate for her son.
Apparently, traditional stories often had multiple cases going at once–much like real life–and I enjoyed the Judge’s logical and organized approach to tackling the issues he faces, as well as the shenanigans by his merry band of misfits. His loyal servants, technically ‘reformed,’ included a clever thief, Tao Gan, and two former highwaymen from The Chinese Gold Murders, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai.
Done in semi-traditional style and based on a legendary figure, Judge Dee, these stories feel somewhat like The Brothers Grimm starring Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Like Grimm, the story can be a bit bloody, as traditional Chinese mysteries included punishment of the villain. I’ll also note that some of his stories might have a sexual fetish involved as part of a motivation; I’d have to say the Chinese must have been far more liberal about this than the English reading public.
Overall, this one regained my faith in the series after the lackluster The Chinese Maze Murders. Recommended to those in the mood for some 7th century mysteries.