Judge Dee and his wives are attending the annual dragonboat races when one of the drummers suddenly dies as his boat is about to win. Being magistrate-on-the-spot, the Judge takes control when the coroner rules it poisoning, and starts the investigation. Before long, another death occurs.
What is interesting about this series is that they tend to be rather fast-moving ‘mysteries’ wrapped up in a 7th century China setting. Judge Dee is a historical literary figure that has a great deal of cultural importance and in his role as (fictional) magistrate, acting as detective, judge, and jury, he gives the reader insight into an earlier China. This one takes place in the height of summer, and I found the mention of techniques used to cope with the heat very interesting. There were cool cloths one could dip and wrap around one’s neck, or large bowls of melting ice that were used to cool a room.
I use the word ‘mysteries’ lightly, because van Gulik tries to source his material from some of the legends, so there are different sensibilities involved. As is sometimes shared in the introductions of various books, the Chinese at the time believed in divine/supernatural connections in these situations, so it’s not always a matter of finding a clue, but of understanding a person’s fundamental character and societal standing. At any rate, I say this because although the Judge and his right-hand-man, Sgt. Hoong, do look around the crime scenes, examine bodies, and interview various people, a lot of the Judge’s solving is really just guesswork. There’s a rather long section where he goes over three possible solutions with Hoong, with limited evidence for any of the possibilities. So don’t expect a tightly-woven whodunit.
There was a moment or two of levity in this one, provided by the unusual Violet, a Mongolian woman who runs a wrestling school. I had to chuckle at the way she was so comfortable using the protocols and expectations of the Chinese legal system to establish her somewhat unorthodox legitimacy. I also found the tortoise adorable and loved his reoccurring role.
Unlike the other Judge Dee books I’ve read, while there was a sort of mythical/superstitious connection at rare times, this was one that avoided the supernatural. On the other side, this focused a great deal on the ‘abnormality’ and ‘urges’ of the murderer as part of the psychology of the crime and it’s resolution. It’s odd; the denouement reminded me just a bit of Poirot or Marple setting the scene, although it was done in a 7th century China kind of way.