Tuesday, May 31, 2011


It's 666 CE (or AD, depending on your viewpoint), and Judge Dee has been assigned to a new post, as magistrate of Han-Yuan, a city in the mountains on the shore of a lake, without walls but close to the Capitol. Dee is unsure of being in a city without walls, but so far things seem quiet enough.

Until the city's leading citizens honor him with a banquet on a flower boat (a sort of floating restaurant/brothel), and the beautiful dancer Almond Blossom grasps a chance to whisper to Dee that she must speak to him later, and that a dangerous conspiracy was being plotted in that town. But before she can give Dee any information, she is drowned in the lake...

And then we're thrown into another full-blooded mystery/adventure with Dee and his retinue. Again, it's three cases, all connected in some way. "The Case of the Drowned Courtesan" is central; who killed Almond Blossom? Who could have overheard her whispering to Dee? And exactly what is the dangerous conspiracy? In "The Case of the Vanished Bride," a young bride is found dead the morning after her wedding, apparently from hemorrhage after having her hymen broken (rare, but as far as I can tell, not unheard of). Both are children of prominent citizens, and the kerfuffle is made worse when her coffin is opened at the Buddhist temple and is found to contain an unidentified man! And the groom? He vanished as well. Where are they? Finally, "The Case of the Spendthrift Councilor" centers on a former Imperial Councilor living in retirement in the city. He's quite old, seemingly becoming senile, but is also engaging in strange business deals where he's selling off lots of property at a loss. What's going on?

Also, there's something you find in a few of van Gulik's other works, a framing story involving the supernatural. In this case, an official who's involved in a fiendish conspiracy, and plagued with uncontrollable incestuous desires for his own daughter, goes to Han-Yuan and meets a beautiful courtesan who seems to be the answer to his problems...until she tells him a story that forms the story's narrative. Then she becomes a drowned corpse, and her spirit forces him to write everything down before his life ends. It's chilling. (And all of that is in the first chapter, so it's not much of a spoiler.)

Dee's retinue becomes complete in this novel; about halfway through, during an inspection tour of outlying villages, he and his assistants meet an itinerant swindler, Tao Gan, and save him from a pack of angry villagers. Out of gratitude, Tao reforms and pledges his loyalty to Dee, and plays an important role in resolving the mystery.

There's fights, plots, counterplots, passion, secret doors, hidden tunnels, crooked monks, and hints of fearsome supernatural creatures living in the lake. It all ends well, of course, although Dee barely escapes with his job and/or life.

This has always one of my favorite Dee novels; the setting is well-drawn and atmospheric, from the lake to the "Willow Quarter" where the brothels are, to the tribunal and the huge mansions where the wealthy live. And the menace that hangs over all of them.

Required reading, of course.

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