What kind of image comes to mind when you hear the word "monastery"? Something peaceful, tranquil, a place perhaps less concerned with what we consider to be "everyday life" than with a search for deeper truths? If so, it is definitely not a picture of one fictional Taoist monastery in the China of the T'ang Dynasty well over a thousand years ago - a place called the Monastery of the Morning Cloud. When the district magistrate, Judge Dee, along with his wives and a principal assistant, found his entourage by with a broken axle in a torrential downpour, he sought shelter at the monastery. What he found there was a series of intricately connected and terrifying mysteries, which he solves in The Haunted Monastery, a 1961 Judge Dee mystery by Robert Van Gulik. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
Judge Dee was a real person - a district magistrate and later a court official during the T'ang Dynasty. His exploits, as chronicled by Robert Van Gulik, are fictitious, but Van Gulik has tried to write them as if the stories might have been written hundreds of years ago, with elements that would have appealed to their original audiences. Van Gulik hoped that western audiences would also find these glimpses into ancient China to be fascinating. In my opinion, he has succeeded admirably.
When Judge Dee and his traveling party sought shelter from the storm at the Monastery of the Morning Cloud, they were welcomed most respectfully by the monastery’s abbot, called True Wisdom. But Judge Dee quickly realized that there was something very sinister going on. The former abbot, known as Jade Mirror, had died recently under most peculiar conditions – he had summoned the monks to hear him deliver a long and complex sermon, at the conclusion of which he had simply closed his eyes and died. The monks insisted that Jade Mirror’s death was caused by supernatural forces. Judge Dee wasn’t so sure.
Then there were the three women who apparently had disappeared or died under questionable circumstances at the monastery within the previous year. And Judge Dee himself observed something which might – or might not – have been of supernatural origin – a bizarre view through a window in a wall which apparently had no windows. It proved to be quite a challenge for Judge Dee as he tried to find a way to bring a particularly vicious murderer to justice.
The Haunted Monastery by Robert Van Gulik is a glimpse inside a long-vanished imperial society as seen through the eyes of a powerful – yet essentially simple – district magistrate. I recommend it to you quite highly.