Judge Dee has just been appointed the magistrate of Peng-lai, a position he only gained due to the death of his predecessor. Said predecessor was found poisoned in a locked room, with poison found in his tea. However – that tea set was kept under lock and key and the magistrate was the only one who had access to it, creating the main impossible crime of the story. The magistrate’s ghost has also been seen in his former residence, and combined with Peng-lai’s reputation for the abnormal, Judge Dee is in for a treat.
But, even more mysterious happenings will occur. The bride of a wealthy shipowner disappears without reason. A grave is discovered and it contains the remains of a monk and a man, though the monk should not be there. Two of Judge Dee’s guards witness a man being clubbed to death, though his body cannot be found. A monastery is supposedly being haunted. A secret message left by the murdered magistrate in the form of a box has it’s content’s stolen. Rumors of gun smuggling to Korea abound and this crop is topped off with a phantom tiger that has been mauling various farmers throughout the district.
As you can see, this book is overflowing when it comes to mysteries to think about. I’ve never really read a mystery novel with this many seemingly separate enigmas, and while mostly successful, the overcrowdedness presents some of the book’s only flaws. The mysteries are solved in the end in a way the showcase’s just have brilliant Van Gulik’s plotting was. He finds a way to connect nearly all of these seemingly unrelated events into a complete novel and doesn’t end up getting caught in his own web. Some of the revelations are brilliant and the culprits plot is probably one of best I’ve ever encountered using the type of motive present here. The way the gold ties into the plot is also highly enjoyable and it allows for a great scene right before the denountment. But the complete overstuffing still present’s problems. Gulik places most of these puzzles right towards the beginning and that leads to various stretches of the text being dull due to little occurring, making reading a slog for chapters at a time. It is a minor critique – easily solved by a few scenes being moved around, but it still marred the book in my eyes even if it was still a overall fast read.
The thing that Gulik really succeeds in with this book is the setting. He paints Tang Dynasty China in an incredibly realistic light, with the novel actually feeling like it’s set there, instead of there being a few mentions of some cultural aspects while everything else is fully modern. The tensions occurring in China at the time our beautiful rendered, with them being integrated fully into the stories plot. The court’s inner workings are fascinating, and the descriptions of places like the floating brothel’s feel apt and not overly dramatized for effect. Gulik also includes several prints in the Chinese style to illustrate the story, something that isn’t needed, but fully enhances the story by being there. My favorite part of the book is definitely the scene in which Dee attends a performance of a traditional three part mystery play centered around a famous detective known as Judge Yu. The play provides a important clue while also being a very entertaining little piece that is brought to life by the writing.
The impossible poisoning is perfectly alright. I was expecting a little more for the situation, and the fact that the solution was revealed very early somewhat dampened the overall effect. The postscript however, provides a lovely little piece of trivia about the origin of the method which is absolutely delightful while improving my perception of the overall idea.
The character’s aren’t exactly successes. As noted by others ( see below), the woman here are abysmal. They are given little characterization and are mainly used as objects for the progression of the plot. Many are either prostitutes or the owners of brothel’s who are either incredibly naive and annoying or cruel and sour to the taste. There also is a very unpleasant scene in the court room near the end which while making perfect sense for the time period, still leaves a foul taste in my mouth when it comes to what happens to a female character. Judge Dee is the best one here, decent personality with you knowing who he is fully after a few chapters without any unnecessary backstory. The others are mostly crude, ridiculous or uninteresting, though some receive very fascinating turn arounds in the final few chapters. The final few sentences are great, adding much to the conclusion in a manner that isn’t too unrealistic or shocking while still giving a great kick in the pants to a unprepared reader.
A fascinating novel, especially for the setting and it’s ties to Chinese history. Great puzzle and resolution, though flawed in some ways. A 3.75/5 from me.