Thursday, August 25, 2011


Second in the series in publication order (published in 1958), you can tell because van Gulik really works hard at keeping the three cases separate. There's also a sort of rawness palpable in this book; it hasn't quite the polish that the later books had. Yet still there's an obvious verve and enthusiasm for the material that shines through.

It opens with the supernatural framing story found in some of the novels. In this one, a Ming Dynasty collector of criminal memorabilia happens upon one of Judge Dee's old caps, and tries it on, only to be flooded with memories that aren't his own. Of course, he's compelled to write them down...

Dee is the newly-appointed magistrate of the district Poo-yang (stop snickering), in the Kiangsu province. So far things are quiet, save for a vulgar murder in the poor district. But later there arises a few more cases...

In "The Rape Murder in Half Moon Street" there's a simple-sounding case that turns out to be nowhere near as simple as it seems to be, with a great bit of armchair detection as Dee, hearing the details of the case in the courtroom, issues a rough description of an unknown person who is the real killer, based solely on deduction. There's also a supernatural edge to that story, as it involves a pair of purportedly cursed hairpins that were stolen, that bring calamity on the owner...

"The Secret of the Buddhist Temple" has Dee being openly bribed by some Buddhist monks who live in a wealthy temple outside town. They find out it's reputed for a "miraculous" statue of Kwan Yin; if a childless woman sleeps in the temple, she'll be blessed with children. This is a problematic part of the book, as Dee suspects wrongdoing right away, simply because they're Buddhist. (The old Chinese novels van Gulik based these books on had anti-Buddhist material in them, and were also occasionally anti-Taoist as well.) But Dee seeks to get to the bottom of what's going on.

And then there's "The Mysterious Skeleton," in which an elderly widow presents evidence of a long-standing feud between her family (of which she is the last member) and of a wealthy Cantonese merchant residing in town. While her story has inconsistencies, the judge does suspect the merchant right away (because he's Cantonese, it seems) and out of nowhere assumes he's smuggling salt, an Imperial monopoly. The trail of clues lead to an abandoned Taoist monastery near the merchant's compound that had been used by a militant sect (see? distrust of Taoists!), and a huge old bell that covers a grisly secret.

OK, so it's got a few weaknesses, mainly in that Dee's Confucianist prejudice against other religions, and prejudice against Cantonese merchants, doesn't sit well with modern Western sensibilities, even if he's always justified in the end. It's also Dee at his most ruthless and manipulative, and we're not always made privy to what's going on in his head. At one point he purchases two low-class concubines for reasons not readily made apparent, and ends up pissing off his First Lady something fierce. And a the way the Buddhist monks are dispatched struck me as a wild coincidence when I first read it about 30 years ago, but a modern rereading shows that Dee waited until the right moment and manipulated circumstances so things would turn out the way he wanted them.

But there are some good secondary characters introduced in this book. Sheng Pa, the head of the Beggar's Guild of Poo-yang, is a great mix of comic foil and shrewd rogue. Magistrate Lo, the head of the neighboring district of Chin-hwa, will reappear in a number of works; he's a playboy with multiple wives and numerous concubines, loves to entertain, publishes poetry, but is also whip-smart and misses nothing. He's an entertaining character and fun to read about.

So, despite some flaws, this is still Required Reading, so check it out.

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