Thursday, September 15, 2011

Judge Dee: Beggars & Swords, Pavilions & Pearls

We're back in China again, in one of Dee's busiest periods of his career. From 668 to 670, he investigated not only the Bell murders but a number of other cases as well, some of which are covered here.

First off are two short stories. The first, "The Two Beggars," has Dee spotting the seeming ghost of a beggar in his house, which inspires him to look closer at the reported death of a beggar nearby. It's got a decent plot, with good info about the Lantern Festival, a well-etched characterization of the victim, and a nice explanation for the ghost. It's kind of a sad story as well, with the theme of hopeless, frustrated yearning that pops up here and there in van Gulik's work. The second, "The Wrong Sword," has Dee's assistants witnessing what at first seems to be the accidental killing of a young boy, who's part of an acting troupe doing acrobatic tricks. (In the Dee works, there's little difference between being an actor and being an acrobat/dancer/juggler.) They look closer, and there's ugliness underneath it all. The ending is nasty but there's a nice look at the lives of traveling actors of the period...although Dee's assurances to the innocent survivors at the end seem almost like rubbing salt in their wounds.

Next up is the novel The Red Pavilion, in which Dee and Ma Joong are passing through the pleasure resort of Paradise Island (no, Wonder Woman does not live there, and they're not in the Bahamas). They're to spend a couple of days relaxing while on their way back from a visit to the Capitol, but then Dee's friend Magistrate Lo is there, and must beat a hasty exit for some reason, and asks Dee to cover a few things for him, while Dee stays in a luxury suite that gives the novel its title.

The Red Pavilion has its three separate cases, but the separation is tenuous at best. "The Callous Courtesan" is about Autumn Moon, the "Queen Flower" or chief courtesan of the island, who is an unpleasant personality, and who is found dead in Dee's locked bedroom. Why? Was she poisoned, or killed somehow? "The Amorous Academician" concerns a mysterious death that happened a week earlier in that same room; in this case, an egotistical young scholar seemingly committed suicide, something quite out of character for him. Was he really murdered? By whom? And "The Unlucky Lovers" concerns itself with an unsolved murder that happened in that room decades before; who was the real culprit?

They're all very well intertwined, but I have to say that the solutions are uninspiring and bland. The real attractions are its looks at the worlds of courtesans and businessmen who run the pleasure resorts of the period. Magistrate Lo is always good company, and there's also two exceptionally good minor characters, enforcers for the local constabulary who are known as the Shrimp and the Crab. They're worth the reading alone.

The Emperor's Pearl takes place in a town near Poo-yang, during the Dragon Boat races. Dee and his wives are enjoying a game of dominoes on the official barge when crime interrupts...

Three cases again! "The Dead Drummer" gives us the mystery of a drummer for one of the boats who suddenly dies during the race, and they realize he was poisoned. Who did it, and why? "The Murdered Slavemaid" has a woman hiring Dee for a service (he's disguised as a wandering martial arts teacher) only to have him be too late to prevent her murder or to catch the criminal. Who was she, and why was she killed? And "The Emperor's Pearl" is the mystery of a treasure, a pearl of exceptional size and beauty, that's supposedly in the area, hidden away for years after it vanished from the Imperial Palace. Is it really there? Where is it? Would someone kill to have it?

The milieu is mostly that of antique dealers, with some weird sexual perversion going on. Sheng Pa, the roguish king of beggars from The Chinese Bell Murders, reappears, and has a romance going on with a frail court lady. (I'm only being partly sarcastic.) And there's other mysteries, of a supposedly haunted house, a woman who suddenly went insane, and others that are finally resolved in a dramatic confrontation.

This one is solid work, never spectacular or terrible, but a good piece of literary craft.

Coming up: two more from Poo-yang...

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