Monday, May 9, 2011
Judge Dee: THE LACQUER SCREEN
Dee and his stalwart lieutenant Chiao Tai are on their way home after a conference in the capitol, and stop off in the city of Wei-ping for a week's vacation, incognito. He stops to pay a call on the district's magistrate, Teng, a famed poet who's also noted for his devotion to his beautiful wife, Silver Lotus. Only Dee finds Teng to be irritable and rude, and after he leaves and he and Chiao Tai are supping in a restaurant, a local criminal mistakes them for fellow lawbreakers and takes them to the headquarters of the local underworld, where they get a rare glimpse of the comings and goings of the city's criminals.
Like other books in the series, there's three mysteries going on here, but they're very intertwined and one is barely a mystery at all. In "The Case of the Lacquer Screen," it's revealed that Teng's wife, Silver Lotus, has been murdered in her bed, and Dee ends up simultaneously assisting in a cover-up and trying to uncover what was going on her life that could have possibly led to her death. He also hears a weird story from Teng, of how his life has paralleled a lacquered screen standing in his home, and how now he fears he murdered his wife in a fit of madness. "The Case of the Credulous Merchant" concerns the mysterious suicide of a local merchant, and disappearance of his body. In "The Case of the Faked Accounts" one of the local thieves has a book of strangely altered accounts that links to another mystery in the book.
The separation between the stories is slim; the cases of the Credulous Merchant and the Faked Accounts are really pretty much one and the same, and figures in the other two play roles in the case of the Lacquer Screen. But it's still a good read. There are elements of film noir in the cases of the merchant and the accounts, and the murder of Silver Lotus is overflowing with gothicism and twisted emotions. (There's a great scene where Dee goes with a local thug to where her corpse is lying, in the swamps; he terrifies the man with stories of evil spirits, then casts a mumbo-jumbo spell to keep him in one spot until he's finished.)
There are also a lot of good characterizations. There's the Corporal, the head of the local underworld, an essentially decent man fallen on hard times but who does his best to keep the thugs in line and won't stand for murder. And there's psychotic burglar Kun-Shan, and the Student, a wannabe thief who's not much better. Golden-hearted prostitute Carnation is a valuable ally (and there's a nice scene between her and Dee when they go undercover at a house of assignation).
As always, the reader gets the cast list with the three cases, and an array of illustrations. There's no map of the city, disappointingly, but there is a cool illustration of the four panels of the screen that gives the book its title. And the glimpses into Chinese culture are always good fun. I just loved the bed in the house of assignation, where illicit lovers leave poems, composed on the spot, pinned to the wall all around. Imagine that in a modern motel room...
This isn't the best of the series, but as with all the Dee novels, it's highly recommended.