A very enjoyable murder mystery set in China during the Tang Dynasty. With an outbreak of plague driving the Imperial court from the capital city, Judge Dee has been appointed Emergency Governor of the city for the duration of the epidemic. A prominent merchant is found dead, he is one of three families who had ruled the city during an outbreak of civil war a century ago. These families, now much reduced, are still perceived as being part of an "old world", representative of past times. The very violent death of the last member of another of the there families leads to an investigation which raises questions about the earlier death. The resolution of both these cases involves the last member of the the third family. The mystery is expertly constructed, the period details are integral to the story and the cast are lively and appealing. The reveals are nicely staged, the conclusion is thoughtful and convincing.
Robert Van Gulik manages to create a very nice balance between the need to construct an interesting and credible mystery and animating it as a story with a credible cast. The motives emerge very strongly from actions and personalities of the cast so that there is a strong and true emotional context in the story. The crimes arise very naturally and the investigation is equally natural and effective. Judge Dee is a clever and observant man and it is his understanding of human nature that leads him to the heart of the problems. The rest of the cast are strongly drawn, the context of the city in the grip of a heatwave and a plague is very convincingly portrayed. The fifteen illustrations done in Chinese style by the author add strongly to the charm of the book. This is a very well written and entertaining crime story with a very appealing setting.