Friday, April 30, 2010

Happy Walpurgisnacht!

It's May Eve, Walpurgisnacht! Go out and indulge in wild revelry, or stay home with a good scary book or movie.

And it's Dust & Corruption's second birthday! We're only getting bigger and better!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

DEE GOONG AN, translated by Robert van Gulik

This book, and others in the series, are probably unknowingly beloved by all the purveyors of Chinese cuisine in my area, because whenever I reread one of van Gulik's novels, an overwhelming appetite for pot stickers and lo mein overtakes me.

Robert van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat who spent long periods of time in Japan and China, and even served here in DC at the Dutch Embassy. (I may have to swing by there, as a sort of pilgrimage.) He wrote several books on Chinese art and culture, but what he's best remembered for is the long-running series of mystery novels set in T'ang Dynasty China, featuring Judge Dee.

Dee was based on a real Chinese official, Di Renjie (630-700), who had a long illustrious career and eventually became one of the empire's top officials. And Dee was almost a folk hero in China, with many fictional works written about him, including this one.

DEE GOONG AN is an anonymously-written novel from the 18th century, about three fictional cases solved by Dee, and van Gulik translated it in the mid 20th. In his introduction, it's obvious he's read a number of Chinese detective novels, but found this one to be the closest to Western ideas of acceptable detective fiction. Chinese detective novels tend to ramble on and on for volumes, reveal the murderer at the beginning (viewing the puzzle as a chess game between the villain and the hero), and feature heavy supernatural content, including testimony from ghosts and household objects, even with the judge being baffled and aided by dreaded Judge of the Underworld, coming to the mortal world to claim the killer!

There is, however, enough difference in this book to make it interesting. There's three separate cases involved; in this book, they're "The Double Murder at Dawn," "The Strange Corpse," and "The Poisoned Bride." At the beginning, we're given a cast list of the people in the tribunal and of those involved in each case.

In the book, Judge Dee is the magistrate of the district of Chang-Ping, and is aided by his elderly family retainer Hoong Liang, tough guys Mah Joong and Chiao Tai, who are former outlaws, and reformed con man Tao Gan. He first has to deal with a savage double murder among traveling silk merchants. Then, while chasing clues, he stumbles upon a dysfunctional family and suspects the dead father was murdered a year before. Later, a prominent family is in an uproar when a newlywed bride dies on her wedding night, from a mysterious poison.

Some of the traditional mystery stuff we're used to is absent. The killer in the double murder case takes a little bit to identify, and then the problem after that is finding him. The killer in the family case is almost immediately identified, but the issue is figuring out how it was done. And the poisoning case takes some work to figure out the who and how.

There's an interesting entr'acte, a little dramatic scene that reflects on some of the issues in the book. And there's some supernatural content, too. Dee is led to the grave of a murder victim by a ghost, and later the corpse gives a sign that it was the victim of foul play by closing its eyes. And at one point, Dee is sleeping in a temple and has a prophetic dream which gives several clues, but it could at least partially be credited to Dee's subconscious.

And one thing that's seriously cool about this, and the other Dee's actually illustrated! There's a few reproduction plates and several others done by van Gulik in Chinese style. It really helps in visualizing the characters and their milieu. (The cover picture above is an example.)

DEE GOONG AN is fun, if a teeny bit creaky in spots. There's a couple of elements that show up in van Gulik's novels later, but otherwise it's a good read.

I'm considering rereading the entire van Gulik series, probably in chronological order, instead of publishing order (two different things). Apparently there's another French-language series about Dee, from author Frederic Lenormand, but they're not available in English. And there's a newly-written collection from author Zhu Xiao Di, that I just got, so I'll probably throw that in as well. Look for them, sporadically, in between other projects.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Guest Post: : The Spooktacular Stories of Roald Dahl

Vagrarian here: I'm proud to introduce D&C's first guest blogger, Sara! I'm glad she wanted to come aboard, and I hope she'll come back soon. And now, let me hand the microphone over to her...

Roald Dahl is, of course, most popular for his excellent children's stories, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and The BFG. Many of his novels have been made into movies with great success. He was, by all accounts, one of the most celebrated children's writers of all time.

And yet what of his adult stories?

Most people are unaware that Dahl even wrote for adults, let alone that his work was any good. But it was—at least according to the judges of the Edgar Awards. Dahl won three of them: one for the collection Someone Like You, one for a story titled "The Landlady," and one for a Tales of the Unexpected episode based on his short story, "Skin."

The short stories are spooky writing at its best—twisted, macabre, and chilling in a way that stays with you for hours or even days after reading. Here are the best of the best.

"Lamb to the Slaughter" is my personal favorite Dahl story. It's found in the anthology Skin (along with the fantastic title story) and features a violent murder with a particularly interesting weapon—a frozen leg of lamb. After using the leg to get rid of her husband, the main character roasts and serves it to the police officers who arrive to investigate the crime. Does it get any better than that?!

"The Landlady" sounds a bit boring in summary—a young man takes up a room at a boardinghouse that's run by a strange lady—and yet is riveting in tone and character. As the reader grows more and more unsettled, the story clamps like a vice grip and becomes ever more captivating. You can listen to "The Landlady" here and find it in the anthology Kiss, Kiss, among others.

"Royal Jelly" rounds out my trio of recommendations, and it can also be found in Kiss, Kiss. I don't want to give away the twist to this one, so I'll just give you the basics: Albert and Mabel are new parents of a little daughter who is born frail and ill. Mabel frets constantly about the baby being underweight and growing dangerously sick until Albert tries slipping a bit of royal jelly into the baby's bottle. The jelly seems to do the trick . . . at first.

Though these are a few of Dahl's most standout stories, all are truly brilliant and deserve a good read. You can find most of them in the anthologies Kiss, Kiss, Someone Like You, The Umbrella Man and Other Stories, Skin and Other Stories, Switch Bitch, Tales of the Unexpected, and The Roald Dahl Omnibus.

This post was contributed by Sara Bimmel, who writes about Halloween costumes over at

Saturday, April 10, 2010


Just about every review praises this book's opening line, and I have to share their enthusiasm. "After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn's for an oyster supper."

You gotta admire a book that gets down to the brass tacks on the first page.

MEANING is the tale of Edward Glyver, a man consumed by a thirst for vengeance on his nemesis, Phoebus Daunt (don't you just LOVE that name?), who framed him for theft back in their school days and ever since has been the bane of Edward's existence. Of course, neither of them is particularly admirable; Edward, the narrator, is a cad and a murderer, obviously. Phoebus is no better.

But what makes this so readable is the lavish Victoriana all through. Taking place in the 1850s and earlier, the late Cox stuffs it full with details that never overwhelm the story. You really get a feel for the milieu, instead of just being told about it, as so many other books do.

It's also, in many ways, Glyver's autobiography, as he chronicles his childhood, his friendship with Daunt and then the subsequent betrayal, and his adventures making his way in the world. Of course, his quest for vengeance against Daunt leads to him making significant discoveries about himself and his background, which only give further motivation for his vendetta.

And one of the good things about this story is you see how Glyver's passions for vengeance, and later for the lovely Emily Carteret, end up in his self-destruction. While Phoebus certainly deserves censure, one gets the feeling the Glyver's vendetta is really against his own baser nature.

This is a rip-roaring read, a grand recommendation for anyone of the D&C mindset. Cox wrote a sequel, A GLASS OF TIME, that takes place twenty years later and deals with the aftermath of Glyver's actions, and had expressed a desire for a third, but his death from cancer just over a year ago put an end to that. That makes this story all the more precious. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A Musical Interlude (and a few additions)

Since spring is in the air, and today's Easter for those who observe that sort of stuff, here's Astor Piazzolla's "Primavera Portena," part of a "Four Seasons" tango suite. It's seasonal, and all those raffish types in the 20s danced the tango in questionable bars in London (or at least, I like to think so), and tango music pretty much rocks in general, so here it is.

I've also added a couple more podcasts to the list. "Monster Talk" has great discussion about supposedly-true tales of odd crytids, from a skeptical and scientific point of view. The hosts are great, including Blake Smith, Dr. Karen Stollznow, and the ultracool Ben Radford, whom I was lucky enough to meet a few weeks ago. Also added is "Dial P for Pulp!", a great podcast that covers the Pulps and their fans. I was just introduced to it when the host emailed me, and I immediately gave it a listen. It's good stuff, folks! And lastly, "Celebrate Poe," which appears to be defunct (it hasn't been updated since October) but has a lot of great material and the host is genuinely enthusiastic about Poe.

I just returned home from visiting my parents, who live outside Hagerstown, MD. Watching the local TV station one evening, there was a local ad promoting reading Poe, with a local athletic coach reading "The Raven." It turns out to be a branch of the National Endowment for the Arts' "Big Read" program that is specializing in Poe this year. Wow! Their hope is to boost reading in the general public, and I hope it works. Also, it turns out the exceptional Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown currently has a Poe-related exhibit, so I may have to go up and take a look.

Hope all my readers are having a pleasant spring so far....