“Taoism has many elevated thoughts; it teaches us to requite good with good, and bad also with good. But the instruction to requite bad with good belongs to a better age than we are living in now, Tao Gan! It’s a dream of the future, a beautiful dream—yet only a dream. I prefer to keep to the practical wisdom of our Master Confucius, who teaches us our simple, everyday duties to our fellow-men and to our society. And to requite good with good, and bad with justice!”
This short, 100-page mystery would be a great introduction for any newbie to the genre. It’s a fast-paced, suspenseful mystery set in cold stone monastery in ancient China that draws only partially on Chinese cultural details to make the case. This story occurs over a span of a few hours, making the chapter transitions a matter of mere seconds, occasionally coming even mid-conversation.
Stemming from his initial attempt at simply translating an ancient collection of Judge Dee mysteries from the Chinese, Robert Van Gulik’s style in his further publications is a masterful combination of historical clues and anecdotes that give life to his colorful protagonist, Magistrate Dee. One fascinating aspect of Van Gulik’s mysteries is that rarely will a Judge Dee novel contain a single case. Instead, the great Judge has to juggle three or four cases at once, sometimes finding that they are intertwined, and sometimes not. This process lends an air of reality to the stories, showing that the magistrate’s life is never boring and that his work is never done.
I had once planned to read all of Van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels in their chronological order of events rather than of publication, but I’m coming to find that neither process really matters. While a number of his characters do recur, and while the Judge moves systematically from city to different city over the years, each novel really is a self-contained story, allowing me to read at will without fear of missing out on an important, overarching story line.
In this particular tale, the Judge is a guest at a Taoist Monastery where strange things have occurred, and he appears to stick his nose into things that shouldn’t otherwise concern him. While events in this story appear to be heavily mystic, as is the case in a number of his other tales, all things are finally proven to have their own, perfectly logical explanations once the facts emerge. While Van Gulik enjoyed illustrating his own books, generally fitting at least one sketch of a naked women into his books, I still think his stories are worth checking out, especially if you love ancient history or the Chinese culture in general.