Friday, October 12, 2012
The Last of Dee: MURDER IN CANTON
Murder in Canton has Dee, President the Metropolitan Court, visiting the titular city in 680 AD. Accompanied by assistants Chiao Tai and Tao Gan, he is there to investigate the disappearance of an Imperial Censor, one Lew Tao-ming. Of course, there's always the three intermingled cases; "The Case of the Imperial Censor" is all about finding out what happened to Lew. "The Case of the Smaragdine Dancer" revolves around an Arab/Chinese dancing girl, Zumurrud, and the mysterious people around her. And "The Case of the Secret Lovers" involves a long-ago death and the repercussions of it in the current time.
This time around, van Gulik talks about the Arab community in Canton, and the Chinese attitude toward them and any non-Chinese. Stories of people with red or yellow hair are dismissed as fantasies by the Chinese characters. It also looks at the Tanka, a real-life ethnic group in China who are outsiders, living on junks in various ports and sometimes referred to as "sea gypsies." (The name "Tanka" is actually a derogatory term applied by the Chinese and is no longer used officially; they're usually called "Boat Dwellers" in China and Hong Kong now.) They're treated horribly by the Chinese, and Dee's conscience is troubled by it, but there's little he can do. Zumurrud, the Smaragdine Dancer, is half-Tanka and even more of an outsider. This is all more of a twist than usual; van Gulik often paints a very sympathetic of Chinese culture and civilization, and this time around he shows some of the uglier side, with some of the Chinese cultural arrogance and prejudices shown full-on.
The plots are all pretty much interwoven, and one isn't much of a mystery until nearly the end. Of course, there's a dastardly mastermind plotting the overthrow of the Empire, and villainous Arabs on the loose. Some good characters include the amusing Captain Nee, a Chinese seaman who's adopted a lot of Arab customs and mannerisms, and has two young slave girls, Dunyazad and Dananir, both of Chinese and Arab mixture. Also Lan-lee, a blind woman who sells crickets, and who develops a connection to Tao Gan.
There's a lot of finality here as well; van Gulik knew this would end the series. Chiao Tai meets a fate that he foretold in the first book, and Tao Gan ends the story with marriage impending. Dee regretfully retires from active investigation, declaring that since his investigative techniques and methods are now so well known, it's become a liability and he's going to focus on administrative and political problems from here on out.
There have been attempts to continue the Dee legacy. A continuation series by Frederic Lenormand numbers 19 volumes, published in France and as yet unavailable in English. Another French author, Sven Roussel, wrote a one-off Dee novel. Eleanor Cooney & Daniel Alteri's massive historic novel Deception incorporated Dee. I have a copy of Zhu Xiao Di's short story collection Tales of Judge Dee, which seemed official when I ordered it on Amazon but the stories are atrociously written, full of anachronisms, and poorly characterized. Plus, it turns out to be the product of a vanity publisher. I got about a third of the way in and gave up. I need to track down Tsui Hark's 2010 movie Judge Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, just to give it a go.
I love the Dee mysteries; every couple of years I reread them all. They're a big comfort; I love Dee's sense of duty and determination to be fair. The descriptions of life in ancient China are fascinating. And it's almost impossible for me to read one of them without being hungry for Chinese food after. Sometimes when faced with a problem I wonder, "What would Dee do?" Dee can be a stickler for the law, but he tempers that with his sense of humanity and justice. He's a great character.
The entire series is Required Reading. Check 'em out.