Judge Dee was looking forward to his stopover in Rivertown, on his way home to his district. He was tired, and the prospect of a couple of days of fishing and rest sounded good. What he found instead was a gruesome murder, the theft of an exquisite pearl necklace from the Emperor's favorite daughter, and a court intrigue that had the potential to shake the foundations of the Chinese empire.
That's the situation we find in Necklace and Calabash, by Robert Van Gulik. Set in seventh-century imperial China, this was the next-to-last of his novels about Judge Dee, an actual statesman and detective who lived during the T'ang dynasty. Originally published in 1967, Necklace and Calabash is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
Judge Dee has barely arrived in Rivertown when he is confronted with the murder of a clerk who had worked at one of the local inns. Rivertown was a special area administered by the military because the Emperor's favorite daughter, the Third Princess, had her summer residence nearby in the Water Palace. The military authorities ask Judge Dee for his help. But he has barely arrived in town before he is summoned to the Water Palace for an audience with the Third Princess, who orders him to help locate a missing pearl necklace, apparently stolen from her room.
It's a wonderful plot. Judge Dee will encounter many fascinating characters, some helpful, some hostile. Among those characters is a Taoist recluse who calls himself Master Gourd, who travels with an empty gourd, a calabash, and who will be instrumental in helping Judge Dee solve the mysteries - in fact, Master Gourd will save the judge's life...
Necklace and Calabash is my favorite of the Judge Dee books. There are three major mysteries expertly interwoven here. Judge Dee, who is ably assisted by a team of aides in most of the other books, is on his own in Rivertown and must form new alliances. All this takes place against a backdrop of imperial China. Van Gulik, who was a Dutch diplomat, was an authority on Chinese history and culture, and his insight into what life may have been like in Judge Dee's time adds a fascinating subtext to the book. I can't recommend this one highly enough.
I'm also including this book in the My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Bingo Challenge, filling in the square on the silver score card calling for "one book with a lawyer, courtroom, judge, etc." Judge Dee will fit right in.
For those of you who might want to discuss this book further, we'll be talking about it among the 4 Mystery Addicts newsgroup on Yahoo! Groups between April 20 and April 30. If you don't belong to the group already...well, you should, no matter what kind of mysteries and crime fiction you enjoy. Come join the fun!