The Chinese Lake Murders
Robert van Gulik
published in 1960
Now this is an interesting book. It is part of the Judge Dee series of murder mysteries set in ancient China (around the seventh century A.D.), written by a Dutchman with a great affinity for the Far East. Robert van Gulik having spent much of his career in the Dutch foreign service at various posts in China, India and Japan. (I wonder if during his postings in China he ever run into Paul Linebarger, a.k.a Cordwainer Smith, another author who was somewaht influenced by his time there...) Supposedly the Judge Dee novels are based on historical stories; there really was a Judge Dee according to the postscript, who lived from 630 A.D. to 700 A.D. and who started his career as a district magistrate.
Now in China at that time, and up until the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912, a district magistrate was the highest government official in a district, the smallest administrative region in the country. As such he was a combination of judge, jury, prosecutor and detective as well as responsible for the collection of taxes, the administration of towns and country etc. In other words, Judge Dee had quite a busy life...
The Chinese Lake Murders, Judge Dee has just been appointed magistrate of Han-yuan, an old somewhatisolated town on the shore of a mountain lake, not that far from the capital. The lake is the source of some supernatural dread, as people who drown in it are never seen again and ghosts are said to roam the shores... Yet at the same time, there are the beautiful "flower boats", driving brothels, cruising the lake at night.
To celebrate Judge Dee's arrival, the town notables organise a feast for him at one of these flower boats, but feast turns to horror when one of the courtesans is found drowned, murdered. So the judge begins an investigation but before this could progress much further, another murder is reported, the murder of a young bride, as well as the suicide of her groom... Death comes in three and it's not easy for Judge Dee to solve all three cases. I won't go into spoilers, but of course things are not as simple or unrelated as they seem at first.
The greatest appeal of this novel lays of course in its unusual, even exotic setting, a far cry from the setting rooms of the usual English "cozy" --not to mention the very different social structures of 7th century China. I'm not very familiar with the period or the country, apart from the most superficial, I'm ashamed to say, but I have to say it at least feels right.
Webpage created 10-02-2003, last updated 05-05-2003