Looking back over the past three years, I see that I have posted several reviews of Robert Van Gulik's Judge Dee novels set in seventh century Imperial China. I plan to review more in the months and (I hope) years ahead. They are all good. But if you ask me to name a favorite Judge Dee novel, I have no hesitation about doing so: "Necklace and Calabash." It was one of Van Gulik's last books, and, I think, his best.
I did a review of "Necklace and Calabash" on the podcast about three years ago, and you can listen to the full review here, but let me summarize for you: the story takes place fairly early in Judge Dee's career, when he was magistrate of the fictional district of Poo-Yang. Judge Dee, hoping for some fishing and relaxation, stops to rest for a couple of days in a town along the riverbank, not far from the Water Palace, the home of the Emperor's favorite daughter.
Judge Dee is quickly involved in a variety of intrigues, as a mutilated body is fished out of the river, some strange guests are hanging around the local inn and the local authorities seem to be behaving rather oddly. Soon, the judge is summoned to the Water Palace - and that's when the story really takes off. It becomes a combination of traditional mystery and thriller, with some truly memorable characters. "Necklace and Calabash" is the most "westernized" of the Judge Dee mysteries, and, as I say, I think it is one of the best. I can't recommend it highly enough.