The Documents in the Case

By Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy L. Sayers co-authored this novel with Robert Eustace (who primarily presented her with the scientific foundation for the crime). It is an experimental work, presenting the evidence for the case in the form of letters, newspaper clippings and statements.

  • Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Title: The Documents in the Case
  • Pages: 174
  • Published: 1949 (1930)
  • Publisher: Victor Gollancz

This procedure means that it is never clear what is true and what is false; none of the narrators is trustworthy, and one of them is even represented by others as going mad.

It is never clear either where one’s sympathy should lie, not until very late in the book, and even then there is an equivocality that makes reading The Documents in the Case in some respects a scary undertaking, because one’s choice while reading is so telling of one’s own personality.

All in all — and to keep it short — this is one of the most interesting Sayers novels, precisely because it is experimental. Also, the theological discussions that sometimes erupt are interesting in themselves.

Death in Autumn

By Magdalen Nabb

This is the fourth Marshall Guarnaccia book, an early Magdalen Nabb, therefore. Death in Autumn is a quite perfectly formed, nicely rounded, well told and concise in plan.

  • Author: Magdalen Nabb
  • Title: Death in Autumn
  • Pages: 158
  • Published: 1986(1985)
  • Publisher: Fontana
  • ISBN: 0-00-617172

In her more recent books, Magdalen Nabb spreads her wings stylistically a bit more than in these earlier books. She is quite fond of what I can only consider a bit of an author’s trick; when her viewpoint character becomes confused, she lets the text itself become confusing &mdash incoherent, sometimes even broken.

In The Monster of Florence this style was especially pronounced. I am not saying that it is a bad thing, necessarily, but it makes life hard for the reader. Sometimes I feel up to that, and want to experience the effect, but mostly, when I grab a mystery novel, I want a story and pleasant, believable characters and perhaps a bit of excitement — but not too much.

Death in Autumn conforms to those requirements to a nicety, and I was very glad I had it at hand when I was feeling a bit miserable recently. The murder has been done already, and while one of the suspects has a hard time (and turns out to be innocent anyway), the book never gets too exciting. The criminal is a master-mind, the victim a rather unpleasant woman and there are interesting ramifications. A bit of a pity that Magdalen Nabb feelst the need to beat the drugs drum again; that’s getting a bit boring.

Halssnoer en Kalebas

By Robert van Gulik

Necklace and Calabash is the last Judge Dee novel but one that Robert van
Gulik wrote. One year after its completion, van Gulik died of cancer, after completing Poets and Murder, the very last Judge Dee mystery. Robert van Gulik is one of those authors who show a clear progression in their work, and Necklace and Calabash is one of his best works.

  • Author: Robert van Gulik
  • Title: Halssnoer en Kalebas
  • Pages: 151
  • Published: 1984 (1967)
  • Publisher: Elsevier
  • ISBN: 90-10-0293306

Necklace and Calabash shows Judge Dee in the middle of his career suddenly elevated to the dignity of Imperial Grand Inquisitor by the Third Princess whose necklace is stolen in a complicated intrigue. Judge Dee has to solve the problem by himself since his assistents have been left behind in a village to hunt wild boar.

The book is filled with intriguing characters. Favourites of mine are of course Master Calabash, a Taoist sage, and Anemone, the cheerful and fresh maid of the inn where Judge Dee stays. But the First Eunuch is well rendered, too, in his warped ways. And there are so many others.

Of course, as one might expect, the details are perfect. No misspelled Chinese words here, and not mistakes. If you read a Judge Dee book you will have learned something about the culture of Ming dynasty China.

Necklace and Calabash shows complete artistic mastery in its structure and plotting, but also in its use of language. The version I have is the translation from the original English into Dutch by the author.

Judge Dee novels are generally quite short; less than two hundred pages, about 60.000 words, I guess. This contrasts sharply with modern thrillers that frequently try to out-do the bible. Wordcount is something that has gone up consistently over the past fifty years. Where once, when van Gulik and Wodehouse were writing, 60.000 or 70.000 words were considered enough for a novel, now publishers start getting interested only at 120.000 words. More words seldom mean more story, though. But readers who have gotten used to fatter book often think so. Likewise, more words does not mean better, fuller or completer characterisation — but just more details piled up. For someone who is used to detail overload, it can be hard to recognize the story and the characterisation in a shorter book.

A Judge Dee novel contains often three complete stories (although Necklace and Calabash only contains two interconnected stories) and characters are sketched with a bare minimum of telling detail. Mastery lies in what is not said, as Master Calabash would say.

The Plague Lord

By Paul Doherty

It is always dangerous to be even moderately well-informed about a subject. It can, for instance, seriously distract from one’s enjoyment of a book if one is trained as a sinologist, and the author of a book set in China manages to get almost every Chinese word wrong. This remarkable feat, far beyond the usual mangling, is the achievement of Paul Doherty. Not that there isn’t plenty else to dislike.

  • Author: Paul Doherty
  • Title: The Plague Lord
  • Pages: 280
  • Published: 2002
  • Publisher: Headline
  • ISBN: 0-7472-6953-x

Apart from the mangled Chinese — Wade-Giles transcription — the book is shoddily constructed, the plot is improbable and the premise ridiculous. It is also too short to give any real feel for the characters and their developing relations.

The setting is the Mongol-Chinese capital of Kubilai Khan. Here Marco Polo appears as one of the Khan’s high ministers. Throughout the world, from Europe to China, visionaries have been visited by portentous dreams: the Plague Lord Azrael has been summoned from Hell and will cause a great plague to break out and eradicate the human race.

(That, incidentally, is one of the things I liked about this book. There is no doubt at all that the plague lord is real. There is no doubt that the visions and dreams are real. No attempts to explain away any inconventient clashes with C20/21 natural philosophy. A pity then than Doherty thought it necessary to picture Marco Polo as a sceptic. One can see his reason for that, of course — it gives the author the opportunity for a bit of info-dumping — but it does detract from the book.

The pacing of the book is very peculiar. The prologue is standard fare with Doherty, and one expects them. Only the real prologue is followed by another two chapters of prologue, subsumed under a Partlet I, followed by the rest of the book in Part II. Paul Doherty is very good at writing atmosphere-setting scenes, but those scenes take a disproportionate amount of space compared to the scenes that develop the story; near the end of the book I got the feeling that I was reading an outline for a draft.

The ending is weak: the Francisan monk and the Buddhist nun corner three sorcerers in a temple and have Marco Polo burn the temple down with them in it. Why couldn’t they just have burned the temple? Is it because Doherty wanted a dramatic ending but couldn’t figure out how to make it logical, too?

Paul Doherty is incredibly productive. Apart from his job as headmaster of a large school, he produces lots and lots of novels. Sometimes I get the idea he’s a one-man Studio Vandersteen, the comic studio that produces amongst others the cheap and cheerful comic Bob and Bobette. At one point, Willy Vandersteen decided to start a second series, Robert and Bertrand, because Bob and Bobette was getting too cheap and cheerful, and he wanted some quality again. With Doherty, this novel, the Alexander novels and the Hugh Corbett mysteries firmly fall in the Bob and Bobette range of quality, while the Brother Athelstan novels have far more going for them. Careful plotting and characterisation, for one thing.

Death of a Dutchman

By Magdalen Nabb

We found only one Magdalen Nabb novel to take on holiday; I’d willingly have swapped four Freelings for one extra Nabb. That said, I didn’t feel that Death of a Dutchman was all that good.

Either it was too warm that particular day on Kea (about 42C, and no airco, of course), or I was too fluffy of mind, or the writing in Death of a Dutchman is fuzzy, undefined, unconnected. I can’t say I do actually remember much about the story; there’s one very memorable old woman, and one very memorable young constable dies.

However, it is likely that the lack of impression Death of a Dutchman left on my memory is my fault, since Irina was quite lavish in her praise when she’d finished it. When I’ve re-read it, I will return to this notice and add some comments.

(By the way, only two notices to go, and then I’m done with the books I read for the holiday!)

 

Fantoom in Foe-lai (The Chinese Gold Murders)

By Robert van Gulik

When I studied Chinese in Leyden, one of the first things they told us was to go and read all of van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels. The very first thing they told us was that two out of three students wouldn’t even make it through the first year. I always thought the first advice to be more valuable than the second advice, which I considered to be mere sententiousness. Reading a Judge Dee book is always a good idea.

  • Author: Robert van Gulik
  • Title: Fantoom in Foe-Lai (The Chinese Gold Murders)
  • Pages: 167
  • Published: 1979
  • Publisher: Elsevier
  • ISBN: 90 10 02329 x

Anyway, the Judge Dee novels are that rare breed, a historical detective novel that combines accuracy, fidelity to the historical original with engaging characters and a ripping good story. It is a curious thing to contemplate that China was already replete with detective novels of a high standard when Sherlock Holmes was a mere glimmer in the eye of Conan Doyle. Robert Hans van Gulik has translated one of those original detective novels, under the title of The Poisoned Bride.

Not counting this work, there are actually two series of Judge Dee novels. The first series shows Judge Dee with his four assistants. They generally take place in Judge Dee’s own jurisdiction and often more than one murder is solved at the same time. The first and prime example of this is The Chinese Bell Murders.

The second series is perhaps less true to the Chinese example, but often better constructed and, because they are the more mature work of van Gulik, better written. Here, Judge Dee is aided by only one, or at most two assistants, and he often travels, or has already been promoted out of the post of district magistrate.

As an aside, it is important to note that the world shown in the Judge Dee novels is idealized. It is the world as the Chinese themselves thought it should have been, not the actual reality. In reality, magistrates were very big gentleman, quite unconcerned with the ordinary people. They governed, especially in later Ming and Qing times, an incredibly big area with an incredibly big population. If you read Shen Fu’s “Six Chapters from a Floating Life” diary (published in an excellent translation by Penguin), you will become aware of just how vast the gulf between theory and practice was.

Fantoom in Foe-lai, first published in English as The Chinese Gold Murders is the first Judge Dee novel in the internal chronology, although not the first written. In this book, Judge Dee sets out from the Capital with Sergeant Hoong for his first post as district magistrate. In a forest, he encounters Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, who later enter his entourage.

Judge Dee’s first priority is discovering who murdered his predecessor. No sane man would want to step in the shoes of a murdered man, a man whose ghost has been seen by the Imperial Inquisitor. But Judge Dee sees it as an excellent start.

One very interesting thing in the Judge Dee novels is to watch the development, the aging of Judge Dee himself. In this book, when he’s still in his thirties, he’s vain enough to be jealous of someone with a better beard than he has; a vanity that he will have lost completely by the time of The Chinese Nail Murders.

Judge Dee novels can be very misleading. If you read one first, and read it only one time, then the novels might seem superficial, just a little light entertainment, nothing to engage the brain. (See Martin
Wisse’s review of the same book
.) When you have read all of the canon, and have re-read key books (Necklace and Calabash, for instance), then you will suddenly be, well, enlightened, and recognize them for, indeed, great literature. Not all that is literary needs to be long, or hard to read. Sometimes great literature is great because of its simple but good writing, strong construction, and inner consistency.

In this, van Gulik has achieved the ideals of the Tang poet Bai Juyi, who famously polished his poems until an illiterate washerwoman could understand them. Great literature, in other words, is literature that is not too snobbish to tell its story to everyone. It was van
Gulik’s intention to give the (Chinese) public something better than the trashy easy-wenyan stories with which it was deluged in the forties of the past century; and he succeeded, as Bai Juyi had succeeded centuries before.

Note that it can be difficult to buy Judge Dee novels. The University of Chicago embarked on a reprint spree ten years ago, but copies are getting rare again. I’ve got all of the novels in Dutch, but only a few in English. This review was based on re-reading the novel in Dutch, although I’ve got the English original, too. Van Gulik, who lived abroad for most of his life, being ambassador to Japan and Lebanon and diplomat in China, wrote first in English. (My hero and example — I write my novels in English first, too.) There are two translations into Dutch; the first by someone else, and then a better translation by Van Gulik. Those translations tend to be slightly corrected and improved from the English versions. At least, that is my impression.

Interesting links:

Because of the cats

By Nicolas Freeling

A book with a perhaps more thoroughly Dutch athmosphere than the others, less cosmopolitan, this last of the Freelings we took on our holiday to Greece was also one of the best. A nice mystery, a very close look at our Inspector van der Valk and some excellent writing make for an engaging, fast read.

  • Author: Nicolas Freeling
  • Title: Because of the cats
  • Pages: 192
  • Published: 1965 (1963)
  • Publisher: Penguin Crime

However, not all is well with Because of the cats. The main villain is in all senses of the word a weak character; not just the person, but also the portrayal. Weaker still is the opportunity this particular German barkeep offers Freeling to beat his favourite drum again: immaturity, immaturity. Anything out of the ordinary is caused by immaturity, and that begins to bore me a bit as an explanation for criminal behaviour. Likewise, there is another rich, self-made man who fits his house out in the worst possible taste, a taste applauded by Freeling.

Of course, this is a book from the middle sixties; it is neither long nor terribly sophisticated. And one wouldn’t expect a show of good taste from the Era of Orange Furniture. Still, one wonders what Freeling was getting at. Perhaps his own youth was a bit too full of good taste or something like that. I don’t know.

On the plus side, Feodora, an immigrant whore in Bloemendaal, has been painted with care, love and immaculate detail. The more’s the pity that she doesn’t get what she deserves. No doubt in the interests of ‘realism’, but it’s a pity nonetheless.

The Chinese Shawl

By Patricia Wentworth

We took four or five Nicolas Freelings with us and as many Patricia Wentworths. I read all the Freelings, and only one of the Wentworths. The other Wentworths I gave a trial, but dismissed them around page 20. This was the only one I finished…

  • Author: Patricia Wentworth
  • Title: The Chinese Shawl
  • Pages: 192
  • Published: 1984 (1943)
  • Publisher: Coronet Books
  • ISBN: 0-340-10899-1

Perhaps I am not a Miss Silver person. Perhaps the Wentworth style gets my goat. I am certain that I despise the idiot men and the stupid women she fills her books with. The men in this book all seem to lose their heads over a piece of skirt they all recognize as venomous. They all seem to be prepared to dump their loving wives and fiancees for the utterly atrocious Tanis.

And then there’s the heroine, Tanis… But no, she is too silly. And the way the hero proposes… Read for yourself:

“…We’re going to be married on Thursday. Three clear week-days — that’s the quickest you can do unless you drag in the Archbishop of Canterbury and pay about thirty pounds for a special license. So I thought Thursday.””Carey, I couldn’t!”

Some more you will — I couldn’t, until the end:

“Snap out of it darling, and kiss me! We’re wasting time.”

That’s going to be one very pleasant marriage, I can tell you. What was this Patricia woman thinking of? Would she actually like a man like him? Would she like to be a piece of fluff like her?

The Bugles Blowing

By Nicolas Freeling

The Bugles Blowing is the first, and up to now, the only Henri Castang novel I have read. When Freeling got tired of his previous protagonist, Van der Valk, he had him killed. One more book followed, with Arlette, Van der Valk’s French wife, in the role of sleuth. Then he switched to Henri Castang. I’m not so sure I like this particular detective.

  • Author: Nicolas Freeling
  • Title: The Bugles Blowing
  • Pages: 261
  • Published: 1980 (1975)
  • Publisher: Vintage Books
  • ISBN: 0-394-74551-5

Either the day was a too warm one — we had temperatures in the vicinity of 45 degrees centigrade, or I was distracted by the noisy brats of our neighbours in Greece (people who even objected to us speaking in the yard before six o’clock in the afternoon), but I couldn’t really get into this one.

I did finish it, but not with real pleasure. I didn’t believe the criminal — I had problems with the depiction of the president of the Republique, and I felt that Castang’s wife was a mere shadow of Arlette. In short, the book left me cold.

(This book appears to be out of print.)

Tsing-Boum

By Nicolas Freeling

One of the nice things about Nicolas Freeling’s books is the depiction of the home life of his protagonists — whether it is Inspector van der Valk or Henri Castang. In Tsing-Boum (really a rotten title, and as you can see, a rotten cover), an added attraction is the appearance of Ruth, the daughter of Esther, who is the murderee in this book.

  • Author: Nicolas Freeling
  • Title: Tsing-Boum
  • Pages: 208
  • Published: 1987 (1969)
  • Publisher: Penguin
  • ISBN: 0-14-003298-3

As always, Freeling is more interested in the people behind the crime than in the crime itself. Do not grab Tsing-Boum hoping for an English country-house mystery only set in the Netherlands. The backstory is all-important. A pity it’s based on the Vietnam war, seen from French perspective, since that didn’t grab my interest much.

However, there are some very strong characters in this book, from sergeant Zomerlust, Esther’s husband, to Jean-Michel, Arlette’s brother. However, after reading a bunch of Freelings, it becomesall too apparent that giving his books a structure wasn’t foremost in his mind. All too often we are given a crime, van der Valk has to travel through a goodish bit of Europe (giving Freeling a chance to display his skill at couleur locale) and then meets the criminal.

Another curious tendency of Freeling’s is his predilection for vulgarity. I cannot call it anything else: in this book, in The King of the Rainy Country, in Because of the Cats (to be reviewed), in all these books, we meet a rich man who has decorated his house with the most fantastically atrocious vulgarities. The traditional elephant’s foot umbrella stand is nothing compared to the description of Jean-Michel’s house.

Oh, well — if the man likes, it’s his party. And Tsing-Boum was a good read, and parts of it I will re-read.