The sceen itself was a beautiful work of art, showing the four seasons and, at the same time, the progress of a man's relationship with a beloved woman. Only somebody modified the last panel of the screen so that it appeared to show the man stabbing the woman to death. Was the magistrate who owned the screen losing his mind? And did he, in fact, murder his wife?
That's the heart of the mystery Judge Dee must solve in seventh century China, in "The Lacquer Screen," by Robert Van Gulik. The book is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
I have written before about the marvelous mysteries by Van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat who became an ardent Orientalist, a connoisseur of Chinese history, art and literature. In 1949, he translated a Chinese detective story about Judge Dee, an actual historical figure who lived in seventh century China. He later went on to write sixteen novels of his own about Judge Dee, with a great deal of colorful background about life in ancient China.
In "The Lacquer Screen," published in 1962, Judge Dee, on his way home from a conference, stops in a neighboring district. He finds the magistrate of that district deeply distraught: his wife has disappeared. The magistrate confides his fears about his own sanity to Judge Dee, who reluctantly agrees to help solve the mystery. Dee quickly finds himself involved not only in the disappearance of the magistrate's wife but with another mysterious disappearance of a local businessman, who may have been the victim of a large-scale embezzlement as well.
As with all the Judge Dee mysteries, "The Lacquer Screen" is filled with memorable characters - wait until you meet "The Corporal," the boss of the local underground, when Judge Dee disguises himself as a petty thief to try to solve the puzzle. The Judge Dee books are a total delight - well plotted mysteries, set against the fascinating culture of Imperial China, a culture unfamiliar to many readers. "The Lacquer Screen" is a thoroughly entertaining book. It is available in print and also as an e-book for the Amazon Kindle.