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Locked Room Reviews:
Robert van Gulik
A very different locked room tale!
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This week’s review is a very different style of mystery, set in 7th century China. ‘The Red Pavilion’ is number six in Robert van Gulik’s fascinating Judge Dee series, and it has a fairly good locked room twist, which just makes it even better!
Robert van Gulik was the son of a medical officer in the Dutch army, who was stationed in Batavia (now Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), until Robert was in his early teens. He was tutored in Mandarin and several other Asian languages from an early age, and finally obtained a PhD in linguistics in 1935. He joined the Dutch Foreign Service the same year, and was first stationed in China, then later Japan. When Japan declared war on the Netherlands in 1941, Gulik, like all the diplomatic staff, was briefly held, but later evacuated. He spent the rest of World War II as a secretary for the Dutch mission to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in Chongqing, where he married a Chinese woman, Shui Shifang, the daughter of a Qing dynasty Imperial mandarin. After the war ended, he returned to the Netherlands, then went to the Dutch embassy in Washington D.C. He finally returned to Japan in 1949 and stayed there for the next four years. Later postings took him to New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Beirut and The Hague, where he unfortunately died of cancer in 1967. He was a well known orientalist who authored many scholarly works on Chinese art, music and culture, including an investigation of the traditions of Chinese erotic art and literature, which is reflected in this novel.
Before the war, Gulik had found a copy of the ‘Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee’ in a second hand bookstore in Tokyo. This work is an 18th-century Chinese gong’an style detective novel (Chinese: 狄公案; also known as Di Gong An or Dee Goong An), written by an anonymous author, “Buti zhuanren” (Chinese: 不题撰人), that is loosely based on the stories of Di Renjie, a magistrate and statesman of the Tang court, who lived from about 630 to 700AD. However, this old novel also contains cultural elements from later dynasties, especially the Ming dynasty. During the war, while stationed in Japan and China, van Gulik gradually translated this novel, as time permitted, and it was eventually privately published in Japanese in 1948. Gulik then further developed the character, and began writing his own Judge Dee mysteries while stationed in Japan in the early 1950’s. The first of these stories,’ The Chinese Maze Murders’ was finished in 1950, but was originally published only in Japanese, then later Chinese, not being published in English until 1959. Fourteen full novels, two novelettes, and a collection of short stories followed, with ‘The Red Pavilion’ being number six in this fascinating series.
Gulik’s main character, Dee Jen-djieh is the celebrated magistrate of Poo-yang district in Kiangsu province, more or less as described in the original gong’an mysteries, and his novels still retain some of the Ming Dynasty anachronisms that are part of this tradition, though Gulik made more of an effort to conform with the Tang Dynasty traditions. In the first novel, Dee is assisted only by his clerk, Sergeant Hoong, an old family retainer. Later, in ‘The Chinese Gold Murders’, which describes Dee’s appointment and first criminal cases, he encounters two highwaymen, euphemistically called “men of the greenwood”, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, who attempt to rob Dee, only to become so impressed with the judge that they abandoned their life of crime and join his retinue. Even later, in ‘The Chinese Lake Murders’, Tao Gan, a con man, becomes Dee’s fourth assistant. However, in ‘The Red Pavilion’ he is accompanied only by Ma Joong, a bit of a womanizer who loves the night life, and also takes care of the rough stuff. Each novel also follows the gong’an tradition of conducting three simultaneous intertwined criminal cases that are brought in front of the investigating magistrate. Unlike most traditional Chinese mysteries, Gulik found the Judge Dee stories particularly appealing as their were no supernatural elements in the solution. The magistrate was responsible for the entire case during this era, from investigation, to the judicial decision of guilt or innocence, and finally handing down sentences, though death sentence cases were referred to officials in the capital. Torture was also a common part of any attempt to extract a confession in this period, with one of the punishments known as ‘death by slow slicing’, but Judge Dee tends to err on the side of mercy.
Other Judge Dee books have been written by several other authors, most notably by Frédéric Lenormand, Sven Roussel, Lin Qianyu, and Eleanor Cooney & Daniel Alteri. There have also been various Chinese film and TV productions, and two English TV adaptations, one a series for Granada in 1969, the other a critically acclaimed 1974 version of ‘The Haunted Monastery’. There was also a 2010 film called ‘Mystery of The Phantom Flame’. Van Gulik also wrote a series of newspaper comics about Judge Dee from 1964 to 1967, which totalled 19 adventures. The first four were regular balloon strips, but the final 15 had the traditional Dutch text block under the pictures.
‘The Red Pavilion’ begins as Judge Dee, accompanied by Ma Joong, arrives at The Hostel of Eternal Bliss on Paradise Island, after crossing the Soul Changing Bridge, which spans the waterways that surround the island. They are returning home to Poo-yang after a visit to the capital following a scandal at a Buddhist monastery in ‘The Chinese Bell Murders’. They have been riding all day along an unusual route, due to recent flooding, only to discover that the The Festival of The Dead has just begun, and that all the inns are currently full in this resort community where food, wine, courtesans, and fine antiques are the primary source of income. They are about to leave yet another inn empty handed and travel through the night, when a clerk suggests to the manager that The Red Pavilion is unoccupied. The manager attempts to explain that there has been a recent bloody suicide in the room, but Dee cuts him short and takes up the offer. It proves to be a very luxurious set of rooms, with the bed chamber having red lacquered furniture, a red carpet, and an enormous canopied bed.
Ma Joong quickly heads out to explore the night life, while the judge sits down to relax on the veranda with his tea. A few minutes later, an extremely beautiful courtesan appears as she takes a short cut back to her room from the baths, dressed only in a transparent gown that reveals all her curves. This, it soon becomes clear, is Autumn Moon, the celebrated Queen Flower of the festival on Paradise Island, who has been declared the most beautiful courtesan of the season. The judge is far from impressed with her cold beauty, and after a brief sparring contest she soon departs. However, Dee is not destined to get much rest. Ma Joong soon returns to tell Judge Dee that Magistrate Lo Kwan-choong of Chin-hwa district, first met in ‘The Chinese Bell Murders’, whose territory includes Paradise Island, is currently in town, a fortunate occurrence which promises to save the weary travellers from going out of their way on a scheduled visit the following day.
By the time they arrive at the local magistrate’s quarters, the rather comic Lo is already ensconced in his palankeen, and eager to depart for reasons that soon become all too clear. They are warmly greeted, but a hurried request soon follows, asking Dee to take on an urgent local case, concerning the recent suicide in The Red Pavilion by the Academician Lee Lien. This tragedy had occurred three days earlier, and it appears that the young man slit his jugular with his own dagger while in the locked bedroom which Dee now occupies. Dee reluctantly accepts the request, and Lo quickly writes out the necessary authority, before telling him to contact Feng Dai, the warden of the island. In a final parting shot, Lo informs him that he must also attend a dinner that very night, at the luxurious Crane Bower restaurant, to discuss the case with Feng and other local leaders.
At this dinner, Dee first meets the principals concerned in the case. Feng, the warden of Paradise Island, maintains the law and runs most of the gambling on the island, the older Wen Yuan controls most of the antique and curio trade, while Tao Pan-te is the head of the wine merchants. Also attending is Kia Yu-po, a poet scheduled to take literary exams in the capital, and, before long, Autumn Moon also arrives in a foul mood. She has just discovered that Magistrate Lo has escaped her marital clutches by fleeing town, so she now decides to repair her fortunes by making a play for Judge Dee. Also at the dinner, serving wine, is another young courtesan, Silver Fairy, who makes a bit of a splash by spilling wine on Wen’s brocaded robe.
Meanwhile, Ma Joong is out enjoying the festive town, and hearing all the gossip, including suggestions that the Academician was not the type to commit suicide. He also makes the acquaintance of a very odd pair who work for Feng, the massive Crab and the hunchback Shrimp, who grow pumpkins near the river. They help him to find a girl from his own village, who turns out to be Silver Fairy, the same courtesan who spilled wine at the dinner. Ma eventually locates her tied to a pillar in a courtesan training facility, having been first whipped by Autumn Moon for carelessness, then more seriously abused by old Wen. The Crab and The Shrimp also tell Ma about another case which occurred thirty years earlier, where the father of the wine merchant, Tao, and rival of Feng for the hand of another Queen Flower, Green Jade, was also found stabbed to death in the same red locked room.
The case becomes far more complex when Dee finally returns to the Red Pavilion after dinner, only to discover the door to his bedroom is locked, and a brief peep through the single barred window confirms his fears. When the door is finally broken down, they find the naked body of Autumn Moon dead on the floor, making a total of three fatalities that have occurred inside this one locked bedroom of The Red Pavilion! Is their something evil lurking in the room? Dee passes a very restless night, before making his way to Feng’s residence the next morning, where he also meets Feng’s daughter, Jade Ring, who is betrothed to Kia the poet, who has recently lost all his money gambling in Feng’ s establishments. Later they proceed to the adjacent luxurious courtroom, and Dee finally begins to hear the case. At the trial, the autopsy reveals that Autumn Moon apparently died of a heart attack. She had clearly been waiting for the judge to return, when she was badly frightened by some unfathomable horror, and a weak heart had done the rest. Still, the circumstances of her death are not entirely clear, and there are suspicions that the Academician Lee did not really commit suicide after being rejected by Autumn Moon following a clandestine relationship. The result is that Judge Dee keeps both cases open while the investigation continues.
To take this story further would only ruin a very good mystery, so it will have to be sufficient to note that even after Judge Dee thinks he has finally arrived at the truth, he is only one step closer to a stunningly unexpected solution, that few are likely to guess. Most of the clues are quite fair, but there are simply far too many red herrings spread across the trail.
The main attraction of this story, and the entire series, is clearly the lavish historical setting in 7th century China, with a wealth of detail about the customs and culture of ancient China. The description of the preparations for the Night of The Dead are completely fascinating, as is the ‘sin city’ culture of Paradise Island, and van Gulik does a masterful job of telling this tale! Yet, despite all the Chinese cultural elements in the plot, this novel still leaves the reader feeling, that with a few superficial changes, this story could take place anywhere at anytime. It is quite simply an excellent mystery that does not depend on the historical interest to prop up a poor plot. Two of my favourite sub-genres have long been locked room and historical mysteries, which makes this a double treat in my books.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of van Gulik’s writing is the fascinating characters he creates. The amorous adventures of Ma Joong are extremely well crafted and amusing, and The Crab and The Shrimp are done to perfection! The fight scene, where Ma, and this odd pair, are attacked by a six thugs with swords, is a very memorable piece of mystery fiction, though I am not usually a fan of fight scenes. The mood of the novel is generally light, without becoming a farce or masking the serious nature of the events. The central theme is captured in their initial passage over the Soul Changing Bridge, after being diverted by flood and tempest. This sea change has little effect on Dee, but it soon sets Ma on a course that nearly results in a whirlwind marriage, and turns the entire resort town upside down. This theme is closely intertwined with the ongoing Festival of The Dead, with the portals of death a central image, as each character is called to judgement, one by one, under the intense scrutiny of Judge Dee who has been metaphorically delegated to guard the gates of eternity. Yet, in the end, Dee finally realizes that these particular ghosts have already deeply paid for their sins and are best exorcised with quiet compassion, rather than the harsh justice of the land.
How do we rate ‘The Red Pavilion’? In the overall context of the mystery genre, this is a very high four star whodunnit. As a historical mystery, I would be willing to give it a low five, right there in competition with all the greats, like Ellis Peters, Elizabeth Peters, and Paul Doherty. Unfortunately, as a locked room mystery, this is not right at the top of the pack, as the solution to the locked room is certainly no brain buster. However, placing three separate cases in the same room, spread over such a long time span, is quite original to the best of my knowledge (with the exception of Eden Philpott’s ‘The Grey Room’ – see review). It also does not require a spoiler alert to note that, in this particular case, it soon becomes quite clear that no single solution will fit all three locked room cases, as they all have significant differences in the basic facts. Still, as a locked room mystery, the best I might do is a very light four, so overall I will call it a very good four star mystery, that is certainly well worth the read!
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