In China, 663 AD, in the town of Peng-Lai, Judge Dee is tasked with unmasking the murder of his predecessor. But investigating a murder in ancient China is never easy. At the same time, Dee finds himself searching for his missing clerk and a bride, newly married to a local shipowner.
And there’s a tiger stalking the jungle, a monk’s body is found in the wrong grave, and the ghost of Dee’s predecessor is haunting the scene of his murder. With his closest adviser and two newly recruited ex-outlaws, is Dee putting his own life at risk?
After Robert Van Gulik discovered an eighteenth century Chinese crime novel Di Gong An, he translated it and then decided to write his own novels featuring the central character Judge Dee. He deliberately mimicked the style of the original. The notable aspect is the idea that there are three strands to the tale, which may or may not resolve into a single tale. Although the third of the Dee tales written by Van Gulik, this is chronologically the first of them (apart from the original novel) relating how Dee obtains his post.
Others rate this series highly, so, given that I needed a pre-1800 setting for one of the last books in the Just The Facts, Ma’am challenge, I thought I’d give it a go. I’ll be honest… I’m not quite sure what the attraction is here.
Yes, it’s different, and the setting is fascinating, but there are snatches of modern dialogue that felt out of place – apparently, this may be echoed from the original tale, but it still felt a bit weird. The different culture and system of beliefs, though, give the story a depth of flavour that can be missing from some historical tales.
Plotwise, though, there are a number of aspects of the mystery that end up just being told to Dee, rather than him discovering them, which I found frustrating. This isn’t a fairly clued mystery, it’s more Holmesian, and it does break two rules from Knox’s Decalogue – admittedly, it would have been hard to dodge the “no chinaman” rule, but there’s another one too…
I’m not saying I won’t return to Judge Dee – there is a lot of potential in the character – but I found this one a bit lacking, I’m afraid.
Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHEN – pre-1800