It must be me and a nationalities thing — wow, maybe I’m some sort of literary xenophobe. I’ve gotten off to a bad start with the first and second Ellery Queen books, and failed to connect with ‘Sweden’s John Dickson Carr‘, and have now been left cold by the opening salvo in Dutchman Robert van Gulik’s long-running and much-loved Ming Dynasty-set mystery series. Is my oft-vaunted love of Paul Halter and huge enjoyment various honkaku texts just a bluff? Who do I even trust any more?
Okay, let’s start with what’s good — Dee himself is a fine piece of characterisation, summed up in only a few short, decisive actions that draw him far more clearly than any 50 page biography ever could. Upon arriving in the (fictional) outpost of Lan-fang to discover his predecessor has abdicated his repsonsibilities in the face of a powerful tyrant, Dee makes short work of resetting the balance: people are thrown in jail, a clever ruse is employed to bolster the non-existent troops upon which he is able to call, and the tyrant is arrested and dragged from his citadel-cum-mansion in disgrace. It has a distinct whiff of The Continetal Op in Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929) in how peremptory and unexpected his actions are.
In fact, the dealings with the tyrant Chien Mow contain one of my favourite flourishes of recent reading: clearly the man is guilty of a raft of abominable actions, and in sitting down to hear charges against him Dee has to determine which are genuine complaints and which are liars underhandedly attempting to profit from the situation. The nature of how this is established — without hesitation, and in a way that sends a powerful message — is smart, concise, blunt, and merciless. Don’t fuck with Judge Dee.
These are also clearly simpler, more violent times, and as Dee encounters more and more people who have been left disenfranchised by the vagaries of life, the brutality of living so far from a controlled central government and three days away from the nearest army outpost, and forced into lives as thieves and worse in order to make sense of things, van Gulik captures the sense of futility and inevitability superbly. Not only do those who are challenged — the army deserters, the robbers, the opportunistic thieves — make their case simply and without a hankering for pity, but Dee and his cohorts understand and accept these stories completely and sympathetically and then move on in ways intended to help. The opening stages, wherein these difficulties are encountered and overcome are brilliant in their brevity, and a joyous whirligig of thrust-and-parry plotting.
But, well, the reason for this brilliance is also the book’s downfall.
Guys, now is not a good time…
Van Gulik’s commitment to form is to be commended, no doubt. He has gone to great lengths to supply imbrications within a series of intertwined mysteries in the manner and style of such Chinese texts as we written at contemporary to his setting, utilising and expanding upon three existing stories from Imperial China to provide the necessary respectful footing. The precise order of translation here is enough to fill the plot of four more Matrix movies — van Gulik would have read these texts in Chinese, but wrote this in English before translating it into Chinese himself — and so while how ‘genuine’ a translation this is comes into doubt (possibly only for me, I tend to think about these things far too much), this reads to my uneducated eye very much like something that has been translated from fourteenth century Chinese manuscripts.
And, dude, that style of writing is hard to read for a long time. If you’ve read Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums (and, hey, it’s still available for free and always will be), the opening story of that — ‘Rhampsinitus and the Thief’ by Herodotus, from around 440 BC — is very much the style employed here. He went here. And his men came with him. They were surprised. There was a big fight, and many people died. Then they left, and everyone knew how tough he was. That was clever. Yeesh, is the whole book written like this? It would appear so. Let us have a meal, the room has been cleaned in your absence. I agree with what you have said, let us speak no more of this.
It’s wonderfully evocative, but there’s no atmosphere, no real sense of anything that matters, or of peril or risk — all the emotion is (historically accurately, I’m sure) buried so deep down that it’s almost like a phenomenally lucky game of Scattegories, but one where no-one knew how to be funny. Now imagine playing that for 350 pages, always going on to the next one in the firm belief that something entertaining will result at some point…feeling the laughter getting more and more strained, and watching as the eyes of the players begin to slowly glaze over as they realise how empty they are inside. This was like that for me.
Or a lifetime of reading personality-substitute t-shirts…
But I wanted, so much, to like it. I love me some genre innovation, am a positive genre origins nerd, and appreciate the richness of the material here hugely…so where’s the fault? I’m tempted to lay it at the feet of van Gulik himself, since he feels rather uncertain in his construction, as if having imagined this anfractuous construction and then found the stories to fit was enough…and then realising he had to actually sit down and write the thing. Of course, the amateurish dancing from one point to the next could be a deliberate conceit employed to more accurately echo the style of the time…but you’d like to think that someone would have pointed out how difficult this is to read over 120,000 word were that the case.
Maybe he gets better with age, or maybe I should take on some short stories first — any suggestions? I get the whole “three threads” thing, with the three separate plots working together to form the larger whole, is a deliberate literary style, it’s much more that how it’s written simply bored me to tears. The crimes are interesting, the solutions imaginative, the way the spirit of the era and place is captured is (in theory, at least) the precise sort of thing I’m after…so help me, the internet — how do I get a happy return to Judge Dee and his minions?!