Wednesday, March 21, 2012
THE CHINESE NAIL MURDERS by Robert van Gulik
Dee has been assigned to the desolate, barren district of Pei-Chow, in China's cold north, for only a couple of months. He and his lieutenants are discussing a recent disappearance of a young girl, when a report is made of the discovery of a woman's headless body. As the novel proceeds there is also the death of a noted martial artist from poison, who leaves a clue in the form of a tangram arrangement. Then a chance encounter has Dee looking into a seemingly natural death from five years before, sure that somehow it must have been murder. Thus we have the three mysteries of the book: "The Headless Corpse," "The Paper Cat," and "The Murdered Merchant."
The book's weak point is that it lifts almost completely whole a plot from Dee Goong An, so if you've read that you'll know, pretty much, how the murder was done and how it will end.
It does have its strengths, though. There's some great, memorable bits, especially an eerie scene with a snowman. There's a wonderfully-etched couple in the book, kindly hunchback Coroner Kuo and his beautiful and selfless wife, with whom Dee starts to fall in love. And we have the ruthless Mrs. Loo, of whom we have little doubt is guilty, but the real question is how long can she manipulate matters to her own end? And, most shockingly, is the death of Hoong Liang.
There is also real tension here. Dee's questioning of Mrs. Loo puts his career and life in danger, because if she is truly innocent, Dee's accusations of her will cause him to be executed. (Of course, considering there are more books in the series after this, it's easy to guess that he triumphs. In fact, the book ends with Dee being appointed President of the Metropolitan Court and leaving for the Capitol.)
But as with all the rest of the books in the Judge Dee series, this is Required Reading. (And my Judge Dee series is winding down; there's only a novella and two novels left for me to review...)