Thursday, May 5, 2011

Judge Dee: Three Short Stories from Peng-Lai

A shot of some old structures in the real Penglai.

Robert van Gulik wrote a number of short stories about Judge Dee, almost all of which are published in one volume, Judge Dee at Work. They are arranged in chronological order, with brief introductory remarks putting each one in context. Since we're following Dee's career in order, we'll tackle the three stories that take place during his tenure in Peng-lai, his first post as magistrate.

In "The Five Auspicious Clouds," Dee is meeting with several notable locals when a tragedy is announced; the wife of Mr. Ho, one of the men in attendance, has hanged herself in their garden pavilion. Dee finds a clue in an incense-clock in a pattern that gives the story its title. It turns out Mrs. Ho might, just might have been unfaithful, and Dee goes to confront the man she was meeting. However, it takes a chance remark to tell Dee who the real murderer is.

It's not a bad story, if a bit lacking in atmosphere. The criminal-caught-by-their-own-chance-remark plot device is fairly hoary but is still used; it's an old reliable, I guess.

"The Red Tape Murder" has Dee on a routine administrative visit to a nearby military garrison, looking over files and records, when he's called in to look into a military matter; an unpopular officer was murdered, shot with an arrow in his own quarters. A well-liked officer is under arrest for the murder, having been in a perfect position to shoot him through the window, from another building. But something doesn't smell right about it, and Dee interviews the suspect and several others involved before finding the real murderer.

This is one of the lesser stories of the book, and I never really liked it. I never found the military setting all that interesting, and the murder method (spoilers!) of a person picking up an arrow between their toes and kicking it into someone's abdomen with enough force to kill them instantly (spoilers end) doesn't seem realistic to me.

The last of the Peng-lai triad is "He Came with the Rain," probably my favorite story in the book. Dee is out for a walk on a dreary morning after a rain, when he learns of a murder in an abandoned watchtower in the marshes outside the city. The apparent killer is under arrest, but Dee has to look deeper. The victim is an ugly, elderly retired pawnbroker from the city; what was he doing out there? He questions a deaf-mute girl who lives in the tower; although almost a half-wit, she gives some valuable information. And a visit to the victim's home provides some surprising clues. Soon the real killer, and the real motive, are revealed.

This story is rich in atmosphere; the descriptions of the misty marsh and the deaf girl's ruined tower are memorable. And yet again, I have a wistful fondness for the victim; he's an unattractive older man, not very well educated...but when Dee visits his home, he finds a beautiful library with tons of books of poetry, with notes in a clumsy hand. As a pawnbroker, he had to restrict his personal feelings, but he had the romantic soul of a poet, and yearned for the passionate love that his ugly face and age made unlikely. Maybe I'd bring him into play if I ever do a "what if" story with Magistrate Wang surviving the poisoning attempt...

Next up is a novel, The Lacquer Screen, in which Dee and Chiao Tai visit a neighboring district...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

why is there no good short stories about corruption?!?!?