Thursday, July 7, 2011

Judge Dee: Monkeys and Monks

A gibbon, not one who wrote "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."
Here are two cases from Dee's years in Han-Yuan...

The first is a novella, "The Morning of the Monkey," contained in a two-part volume, The Monkey and the Tiger.
Judge Dee is taking his morning tea on the back porch of his official residence in Han-Yuan, watching the gibbons sporting in the trees. When he spots that one of the gibbons is carrying a gold ring, he tempts it with other objects until it's dropped. He retrieves the ring, obviously valuable, thinking to return it to its owner...until he spots dried blood on it. It could have an innocent explanation, but when Dee and newly-adopted assistant Tao Gan investigate, they discover the corpse of an old man, with his head bashed in and his fingers cut off.

Then follows a tale of vagabonds, pathetic love, and an ultimately sad and tragic ending. We get glimpses of the lives of criminal-fringe vagabonds and also of druggists and apothecaries of ancient China. There's also smuggling and Tao Gan proving his mettle with sly manipulation. It's a good story if a bit downbeat.

Next in the series' chronology is The Haunted Monastery.

 Dee and his wives, accompanied by Tao Gan, are on their way back to Han-Yuan from a visit to the Capitol when a vicious storm in the mountains, and a broken axle on their cart, force them to beg a night's lodging at a the Monastery of the Morning Clouds, a Taoist institution in the mountains overlooking Han-Yuan. It's a big night, the 203rd anniversary of its founding, but also dark deeds are afoot...

Dee overhears ghostly whispers giving his name, and then in a flash, he looks out a window and sees a room across the courtyard where a mutilated woman is defending herself from an attacker dressed in old-style armor. But when he looks out again, there's nothing but a blank wall. Was it a supernatural vision? Or something more mundane? And there's all sorts of interesting folks in the monastery, including a troupe of actors, a snarky poet, a would-be nun, and a former Imperial tutor who lives there in retirement.

Again, there are three cases here. In "The Case of Embalmed Abbot" Dee teams with the poet to investigate the possible murder of the former abbot. In "The Case of the Pious Maid," there's mystery surrounding the identity of the would-be Taoist nun, including a dancer who looks just like her, and soon she vanishes from her room. And "The Case of the Morose Monk" gives us the mystery of an extra monk with a gloomy face who appears here and there in the monastery; who is he and what is his secret?

This was my first exposure to Dee; I picked this up in a used bookstore back in the early 80s, driven by my memories of a TV-movie version of this, Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, which aired in 1974 and starred Khigh Dhiegh as Dee, with Mako, Soon-Tek Oh, and James Hong. (I've always wondered if they were testing the waters for a Judge Dee series in the U.S.; there had been one on the BBC once upon a time, and Dee's been the subject of a number of movies in Asia that never make it stateside.) And it's a lot of fun; there's the depiction of a Taoist monastery, the lives of the actors and acrobats who are visiting, and the depiction of Dee's home life. This is the first time we're shown Dee's three wives all together and interacting.

One part of it I also really liked was a very appealing character, Miss Ting, one of the acrobat/actors. She's a tough, smart, capable woman who's of genuine aid to Dee and one almost wishes she would stick on as a permanent Watson. There's a nice scene, too, where she confesses to Dee that she feels an odd attraction to another woman in the troupe, but isn't sure exactly how she feels about the situation. Although it is given a too-tidy resolution, Dee's advice to her is good; he tells her to not do anything until she's absolutely sure of her feelings and of the other woman's intentions. Although it may seem a bit hetero-centric, I have to admit it's advice I would give someone in a similar situation.

There's also good character stuff about Tao Gan, including how he seldom sleeps but just sits by candlelight at night, thinking "of this and that." Although Tao has a good sense of humor and all that, you get glimpses of a lonely and sad person who's kept well at bay.

There are a few flaws, including a few too many convenient love stories (although van Gulik seemed aware of this; at one point Dee reflects that perhaps he should quit being a magistrate and become a matchmaker instead), and too many people wanting to find out what happened to their sisters. But that said, it's still a lot of fun and required reading.

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