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Monday, March 8, 2010

Poets and Murder. Robert van Gulik. The University of Chicago Press. (1968)


This is a very enjoyable and extremely well constructed murder mystery set in seventh-century China. Judge Dee is attending a regional conference in Chin-hwar and staying with the resident magistrate Lo Kwan-choong. It is the time of the Mid-autumn festival and Magistrate Lo has arranged a dinner party to start the celebrations, also attending are an obese Zen Buddhist monk known nationally for his calligraphy, the Court Poet, the former President of the Academy and a beautiful poet accused of murdering a servant and on route to the capital for her trial. A young student staying with Lo is found murdered and Dee is asked to assist. This is followed by the murder of a dancer due to perform at the dinner. Dee pursues the investigation with shrewd insight and care and finally comes to the dangerous conclusion.
The cast and context for this absorbing mystery are wonderfully set up, all the information needed to understand the society and the social positions of the cast, vital to the story, is conveyed as required. It does not block the narrative in any way, Robert Van Gulik subtly embodies a lot of the information into the actions of the cast. The cast is large and varied, moving from a homeless woman living in a ruined temple to top rank Imperial officials. The society that Robert Van Gulik describes is formal and stratified, passions boil behind the formality, desire and revenge motivate the plot with vigour.
There are a number of very nice illustrations by the author in the book, they are done in a period style and add greatly to the pleasure of the book. A very enjoyable story with a sharp bite.

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