Skip to main content

Historic historical murders

This is the book that reminded
me about Judge Dee

These days historical murder mysteries are common fare. We might not hear much about Brother Cadfael any more, though the legacy remains, but I challenge anyone who likes their mysteries with a touch of history not to like the Shardlake series. However recently, while looking for a bit of fiction on my shelves to recover from a bit too much review reading, I re-discovered Robert van Gulik.

In my teens I loved his murder mysteries set in seventh century China, featuring the remarkable Judge Dee Jen-djieh. Dee, based on a real historical character was a magistrate - a role that combined local admininstrative official, judge and CID inspector. van Gulik has an interesting style. While creative writing classes would probably reject him (he's fairly liberal with adverbs, for instance) he manages to set the scene using quite sparse description - he never gets bogged down in floweryness, yet you really do get a feel for the time and place.

I think one of the reasons these books appealed to me so much in my teens was their alien environment - it was almost more like reading a fantasy book than a historical one. The judge had huge power and authority - he could have witnesses tortured and criminals executed - yet at the same time there was a powerful balancing control. If he got it wrong, he would suffer extreme punishment.

I'll be honest, I don't know how women readers would feel about the books - mostly due to the setting rather than anything wrong with van Gulik's writing. Women in the stories are primarily daughters, wives, courtesans or prostitutes. These are very male-centred stories. But there are some strong female characters, and the approach reflects the culture of the time.

The books were written in the 1960s, but really don't feel dated. As always, on returning to one of the titles, I was drawn in and feel the urge for a bowl of noodles and pickled vegetables. Worth discovering if you don't know them. see at Amazon.co.uk

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Mirror, mirror

A little while ago I had the pleasure of giving a talk at the Royal Institution in London - arguably the greatest location for science communication in the UK. At one point in the talk, I put this photograph on the screen, which for some reason caused some amusement in the audience. But the photo was illustrating a serious point: the odd nature of mirror reflections. I remember back at school being puzzled by a challenge from one of our teachers - why does a mirror swap left and right, but not top and bottom? Clearly there's nothing special about the mirror itself in that direction - if there were, rotating the mirror would change the image. The most immediately obvious 'special' thing about the horizontal direction is that the observer has two eyes oriented in that direction - but it's not as if things change if you close one eye. In reality, the distinction is much more interesting - we fool ourselves into thinking that the image behind the mirror is what's on ou