When I am asked which of Robert Van Gulik's mysteries featuring Judge Dee is my favorite, my answer is always the same: "Necklace and Calabash." First published in 1967, the year Van Gulik died, it is one of the best-developed stories in the series.
Looking back, I find that I did a podcast review of "Network and Calabash" just about five years ago, before I started the blog. You can listen to the full review by clicking here.
The story begins with Judge Dee, the magistrate of Poo-Yang, stopping off in a small place called Rivertown, on his way home. He is hoping for a few quiet days of relaxation before he takes up his official duties again. But, of course, if that were to happen there would be no book, so he is quickly pressed into service, first by the military authorities who are in charge of Rivertown, and then by the Third Princess, the emperor's daughter who lives in her summer residence, the Water Palace, located just outside Rivertown. A valuable necklace has been stolen, and the theft appears to be connected to a large, malevolent plot, whose outline is only dimly visible. Judge Dee must also solve the gruesome murder of a young cashier at one of the Rivertown inns, as well as the mysterious disappearance of the innkeeper's wife.
There are wonderful characters in "Necklace and Calabash," including a Taoist monk, known as Master Gourd, who plays a major role in the mystery - even, at one point, saving Judge Dee's life. The Third Princess is also fascinating, and the various military officers and palace guards are memorable.
While the book does follow many of the traditions of the Chinese detective story, it is quite definitely "westernized" for the enjoyment of today's readers. The Judge Dee books, set in 7th Century Imperial China, were among the first "historical" mysteries. If you haven't met Judge Dee, "Necklace and Calabash" makes a perfect introduction.