Monday, April 4, 2011
THE CHINESE GOLD MURDERS by Robert van Gulik
OK, I'm finally getting down to reviewing the Judge Dee series. Don't sue me.
The Chinese Gold Murders is the third of the establishing quintet of Judge Dee novels, all titled The Chinese (four-letter-word) Murders. Although coming after two other books in the series, it's the first chronologically, and is missing the opening framing story found in the other four, which all open with an unnamed narrator learning the facts of the novel from a supernatural source.
The year is 663 CE, and young Dee Jen-djieh, only 33, sets off to his first appointment as a district magistrate. Accompanied by Hoong Liang, an elderly family servant, he encounters two highwaymen, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, but impresses them so much with his strength of character that they reform and become his stalwart lieutenants. (I know, it's fairly cliched, but as these characters had already been established, they had to be given origin stories.) With his retinue established (a fourth lieutenant will be added later), he arrives at his post: the city of Peng-Lai, located across a gulf from Korea, near military grounds and a busy river. (There is a real Penglai in China, in the correct spot, as part of the city of Yantai, in the Shandong province.) And then Dee face three cases, as he does in most of the novels; sometimes they're completely separate, other times they're interconnected.
The book has many of the hallmarks of van Gulik's Judge Dee series; a map of the city in which it takes place, illustrations by the author, and a cast of characters at the beginning giving you a list of who's involved in what particular case. And they're also named: "The Case of the Murdered Magistrate," "The Case of the Bolting Bride," and "The Case of the Butchered Bully."
The first, "The Case of the Murdered Magistrate," is over how the previous magistrate, one Wang Te-hwa, was poisoned in his study, which was locked from the inside. And there's no apparent motive, either; was he on to something? In "The Case of the Bolting Bride," a newlywed woman, returning to the city after a visit to her family, vanishes. Was she abducted? or did she run away? Is she alive or dead? And "The Case of the Butchered Bully" is over the disappearance of an unpopular local, and how he turns up brutally murdered.
Now, what does gold have to do with this? Well, two of the cases are intertwined, but another ends up on a trail of huge smuggling operation involving members of the local Korean community and shady characters around town. And there's also a possible weretiger prowling outside the city, and the ghost of the dead magistrate showing up in the tribunal...or is it really him?
I'm very fond of this series as a whole, but this novel has two points of special interest for me. I first read it as a high-school student, after stumbling on one of the later novels at a used book store, and I loved the atmosphere and immersion in an alien culture. (In fact, the Dee series is often cited by sci-fi and fantasy authors as a perfect way to depict an alien culture in a way that's still comprehensible to the average reader, and they're recommended to many would-be sf/fantasy writers for that reason. I've also heard of them being read as part of college courses in Chinese history.)
The first point was a minor character, Tang, a haunted, insecure man who's a senior scribe of the Tribunal. In the course of the novel it's revealed that he's in love with another man, the chief clerk Fan Choong. Late in the novel he confesses his love for Fan to the Judge, who brushes aside the man's guilt over his attraction, saying, "We go as nature directs us. If thus two adults find each other, it is their own affair. Don't worry about that." And as a young man dealing with the early stirrings of his homosexuality, I needed to read that. And, in fact, they're words I remind myself of often as the years go by. In fact, there's pro-gay sentiments expressed here and there in the series, probably to make up for a less-than-enlightened character who shows up in an earlier book. (And remember, this was the late 50s and early 60s; these were radical sentiments for their time.)
Second, I have always been filled with a wistful fondness for the character of the dead magistrate. Van Gulik really makes sure that you get a feel for the kind of man he was, and it's someone who's very likable and sympathetic, if something of a slacker. There's a great scene where the Judge and Hoong investigate the old magistrate's library, and get a feel for him from his books. And I'm going to go out on a limb and quote the scene, I love it so.
"Well, Hoong, I have now a fairly clear picture of the murdered man's personality. I have glanced through the volumes with his own poetry; it is written in exquisite style but rather shallow in content. Love poems predominate, most of them dedicated to famous courtesans in the capital or other places where Magistrate Wang served."
"Tang made some veiled remarks just now, your honor," Hoong put in, "to the effect that the magistrate was a man of rather slack morals. He often even invited prostitutes to his house, and had them stay overnight."
Judge Dee nodded.
"That brocade folder you gave me a few moments ago," he said, "contained nothing but erotic drawings. Further, he had a few score books on wine, and the way it is made in various parts of the empire, and on cooking. On the other hand, he had built up a fine collection of the great ancient poets, every volume dog-eared and with his own notes and comments written in on nearly every page. The same goes for his comprehensive collection of works on Buddhism and Taoist mysticism. But his edition of the complete Confucian classics is in as virginal a state as when he purchased it! I further noticed that the sciences are well represented: most of the standard works on medicine and alchemy are there, also a few rare old treatises on riddles, conundrums and mechanical devices. Books on history, statecraft, administration and mathematics are conspicuous by their absence."
Turning his chair round, the judge continued.
"I conclude that Magistrate Wang was a poet with a keen sense of beauty, and also a philosopher deeply interested in mysticism. And at the same time he was a sensual man, much attached to all earthly pleasures - a not unusual combination, I believe. He was completely devoid of ambition; he liked the post of magistrate in a quiet district far from the capital, where he was his own master and where he could arrange his life as he liked. That is why he didn't want to be promoted - I believe Peng-lai was already his ninth post as magistrate! But he was a very intelligent man of an inquisitive mind - hence his interest in riddles, conundrums and mechanical devices - and that, together with his long practical experience, made him a fairly satisfactory magistrate here, although I don't supposed he was very devoted to his duties. He cared little for family ties; that is why he didn't remarry after his first and second ladies had died, and why he was content with ephemeral liaisons with courtesans and prostitutes. He himself summed up his own personality rather aptly in the name he bestowed on his library."
Judge Dee pointed with his fan at the inscribed board that hung over the door. Hoong couldn't help smiling when he read, "Hermitage of the Vagrant Weed."
I love that. It makes Wang come alive as a likable human being, and I've sometimes speculated about bringing him back to life for my own series of tales...or maybe not. He had his flaws but was self-aware, and his sharp mind and keen love of beauty have made him something of a role model for me. I just hope I don't end up like him.
The Chinese Gold Murders has my highest recommendation by default, because I consider the ENTIRE Judge Dee series to be Required Reading.
I'll be following the series in chronological order, so next up will be three short stories set during the Judge's time at Peng-lai.