Saturday, December 31, 2011

Judge Dee: Lost in the Maze

Sorry, folks, I was away for the holidays and didn't have much time for blogging. Now I'm back and getting a few things up before 2012 starts breathing down our collective back...

The Chinese Maze Murders was the first Dee book written, but not first in sequence; it's actually mid-way through the series. It opens with the supernatural framing story found in the early novels; in this case, a man who researches old cases has a chance encounter with an old man (the ghost of Dee?) who tells him a lurid story over many pots of wine in a restaurant...but then the next day nobody remembers seeing him.

Dee and his lieutenants are introduced as being on their way to a new post in fictitious district of Lan-Fang, a remote section of the border harried by Uighur tribes. It's said that this is due to his angering two powerful factions, the Buddhist clique and the Cantonese merchants, while at his last posting. (This is recounted in The Chinese Bell Murders.) Things are definitely amiss when he arrives, and he discovers that a local tyrant has set himself up as the power in charge, and has bribed and browbeaten the old magistrate into submission. Dee quickly puts things to rights, although the situation comes into play later in the novel.

Dee is confronted by three mysteries. First off is the death of a retired general, found murdered in his locked study, a bizarre miniature dagger steeped in poison embedded in his throat. And a packet of candied plums is in his sleeve, laced with poison. Who wanted him dead? Was the same person responsible for both?

Secondly, the young widow of another retired official comes to Dee with a problem; her husband left her with nothing but a scroll painting that supposedly was a clue to her real inheritance. However, his adult son by his first marriage maintains that she was disinherited because of infidelity. Does the secret lie in the complicated garden maze of the official's crumbling estate?

Last, what became of beautiful innocent White Orchid? She vanished some time ago and may have been part of the tyrant's harem, but there's no sign of her in his house. Someone who might have been her was seen in an old temple garden...but then later a headless corpse shows up that's identified as her. What happened?

This book has a rawness that clearly indicates it as an early work, but it's still good. Van Gulik's gothic descriptions of the crumbling garden maze are vivid and memorable. He creates a number of good supporting characters, like the feisty Dark Orchid, and the Taoist hermit Master Crane Robe who gives valuable clues while barely seeming to know what's going on. And Mah Joong has a fling with Tulbee, a Uighur girl who shows up later in the series.

As usual, any of Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels are Required Reading.

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