A flair for melodrama and the macabre
Posted August 22, 2011on:
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Robert Van Gulik is a fascinating man and this novel reflects many of his interests. It combines scholarly attention to detail with a flair for melodrama and the macabre. He was very knowledgeable about ancient China and took a deep interest in Chinese erotic art. This mystery story draws on ancient Chinese detective stories, of which he had made a special study, and is enlivened with many erotic allusions to tease the reader’s imagination. There are also a few action sequences featuring clever tricks and deft manoeuvres of the kind found in ancient Chinese literature such as Outlaws of the Marsh and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
It is more ambitious than it seems on the surface. If you return to the first five pages after reading it all, you will discover that what is at first a confused and confusing preface is an attempt to create a story that has no beginning and no end, just as the opening epigraph suggests:
Only Heaven that wrote the scroll of human life
Knows where its beginning is, and where its end—
If end there be.
It is, amongst other things, a ghost story, very much in the ancient Chinese tradition, and the drowned heroine of the story, to whom a monument is erected in honour of her brave and loyal actions, comes back to haunt with her seductive beauty, men who have evil in their hearts.
Unfortunately I don’t think the author’s craft matches his ambition. The novel is too crammed with incidents. The language is sometimes awkward. There is little or no character development. There is a lot going on but much of it is explained only after it has happened, which makes it difficult to become caught up in the action.
However, the Judge Dee stories, as far as I know, have no equivalent in English and I recommend them for anyone who likes exotic mysteries or is interested in China during the Ming Dynasty.
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