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Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Red Pavilion. Robert van Gulik. The University of Chicago Press (1961)

A excellent period crime story set in Imperial China. Judge Dee is returning home from the capital and stays for the night on Paradise Island, an amusement resort of gambling, drinking and brothels. A colleague requests that he adjudicate over a suicide that took place a few days earlier as the colleague has urgent business elsewhere. A second death takes place and Judge De finds that the roots of the deaths may stretch back over thirty years. The plot is very well structured, the reveals are carefully staged and the conclusion is sharp and thoughtful.
A very striking aspect to the story is the way that the setting, Paradise Island, a pleasure resort is intrinsic to the plot. The actions are not simply overlaid on an exotic locale, the very nature of the business done at Paradise Island drives the plot. The cast are very well developed, Robert Van Gulik has a tremendous gift for creating memorable characters, they take to the stage with great confidence and expression.
Judge Dee is cranky and formal, he is also full of insights into human actions and acts with surprising tolerance and consideration. His assistant Ma Joong, an ex boxer and highway man, is allowed to be more than a simple enforcer. The female cast are strongly written, they are not defined by their social or professional roles, they are allowed to be complex people. The context of legal prostitution in which the story moves is treated with care, the uneasy mix of compulsion, revenue and the possibilities open to the courtesans at to top of the system are explored without any queasiness. The lovely illustrations by the author throughout the book are a delightful bonus. This is gripping, first rate crime writing.

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