The Mysteries of the hard hitting Chinese magistrate Judge Dee were penned by Dutchman Robert van Gulik from 1950 through to 1968. Placed as Dutch ambassador to the Chinese government during the second world van Gulik stumbled across a copy of the anonymous Chinese detective work Di Goong An. This book fictionalised the exploits of the real Chinese magistrate Judge De Renjie who lived from 630-700 AD in Tang Dynasty China, and who was considered a great detective. So taken was van Gulik with this book that he translated it into English and then began his own set of fictional mysteries based in part on the real life cases of Judge Dee.
My first encounter with Judge Dee and van Gulik was almost exactly a year ago at the beginning of my blogging life when I read The Chinese Gold Murders, a locked room poisoning that I very much enjoyed. Now having read a second van Gulik work I am getting more excited to explore the whole series. There is something very lucid, striking and believable about van Gulik’s writing. The scene setting, plotting and characterisation allow you to rest into the narrative, and it feels like if this were a TV series it would be very easy to joyfully binge watch.
The Red Pavilion is another of van Gulik’s locked room works, containing not just one but three locked room problems, albeit in the same room. Judge Dee is travelling back to his home province when he must make a stop off at the fictional walled city of Paradise Island. A heaving, tourist metropolis, filled to the brim with gambling halls, brothels and sordid activity. However, when he meets the local magistrate – a clearly quite incompetent and ever so slightly corrupt official – he is forced into helping close up a ‘routine’ case. A simple suicide of a young academic in the bedroom of a high end boarding house known as The Red Pavilion. A sliced throat, barred window and a thick door with large metal key on the inside seems to make it a open and shut suicide. But when a famous courtesan dies in the same room the next day locked from the inside, with only strange markings on her body, and another suicide in the locked room from 30 years prior comes to light, Judge Dee has the task of solving three murders, all with a vanishing assailant.
A creepy introduction kicks off this book nicely and we are rapidly presented with a memorable cast. As we go through the complex ties of the plush and silicious city, van Gulik gives us an insight into the more sordid entertainment of Tang Dynasty China. The three locked rooms are then satisfyingly weaved into the plot; one necessitates, motivates or complicates the other. The murders work in both an immediate and historical timeline, with the 30 year gap from the first locked room to the second and third providing depth and richness to the plot with past grievances relating to the present ones.
The impossibilities are also, importantly, born out of the historical Chinese context that is so well set by van Gulik. This is something I bang on about a lot but I believe is so important: it really works when the impossibility naturally arises from the context the writer has created or is exploring, rather than used as a gimmicky tack on, or something seemingly unrelated to what’s going on elsewhere in the narrative. And van Gulik handles this with flair.
There is a strong respect and love for the culture at hand in and the historical knowledge is clear. You get a well crafted sense of the context without it feeling overbearing or over explained. There are also a number of well placed comical moments through the book, the double act of ‘The Shrimp’ and ‘The Crab ‘being particularly memorable characters.
Some lovely clues set early on come back to haunt you by the reveal, and the whole plot has a solid disclosure. As with The Chinese Gold Murders, van Gulik packs this mystery to the brim with events, giving you a huge amount of information in a very short space of time (170 pages) without it ever feeling like you are loosing your way. And with this book, more than Chinese Gold, there is a Carrian style level up on clewing going on, in that clues are not only set in the dialogue or within the instances that take place between characters, but also in the atmosphere and scene description. Some subtle scenic pointers come to bear on the final solution in a satisfying way.
By the end we are not presented with one solution to the locked rooms, but three. One was an absolute classic that I should have seen coming a mile off but the way it was presented still got me and had me kicking myself. The other two were unique twists fitting solidly into the context of the room itself that I think were very satisfying.
My criticisms? I do love the character of Judge Dee, but there is more than one occasion where a scene runs something like: “I wish I could see the pattern”, he paced the room and suddenly the pattern came to him. You know the kind of thing I mean, you wish you were partaking in the deduction rather than being told its happening in a characters head. Dee’s reasoning does come to the fore at the end, but its usually post-rationalisation (if I can use that term); he’s already worked it out and you are presented with the links. This book is still fair play for sure, but sometimes I wish I could walk alongside Dee rather than watch him from a distance.
In saying that I do realise that not every GAD writer wants a detective who reveals there process. I have seen that for example in the Inspector Cockrill mysteries of Christianna Brand – Suddenly at His Residence and Tour de Force being good examples – where Cockrill is very much in the background, along with his deductions, and therefore the reasonings of the rest of the cast are what makes up the ‘detection’ of the novel. Brand cleverly uses emotional responses and ‘lay’ deductions from characters as a way of clewing and building plot (man she is good!) But that isn’t really seen here with van Gulik. It does make me wonder, as van Gulik was so committed to the Gong’an writing style that this could be a stylistic choice note redolent of those early Chinese works? I need more expert input here (I’m looking at you Ho Ling and Tom Cat).
When it comes to the women in the book I wish it could sometimes be a little less historically accurate. The buying, selling and sexualisation of women is potent (it is a brothel town after all), but there are some good female characters, and over all the book exists as a critique on the fickle world of gambling and prostitution, particularly through Judge Dee whose fixed morality hits out against these practices. There is a reflection on the fleeting nature of beauty, and on how one may find love within these moral complexities.
If you see a van Gulik on your travels whip it up, particularly his locked room works. He has a lovely handle in these complex mysteries which is very satisfying to watch unfold.