Saturday, December 31, 2011
Last Two Reviews of 2011
I've been reading like mad to try and meet my Outdo Yourself and Goodreads Challenge goal of 220 books in 2011. And, as of two minutes ago, I made it. Woo hoo! Happy Dance at Bev's place! Now, I have to drag myself out of my reading frenzy stupor and do at least a mini-review for the last two books of 2011.
First up: The Chinese Bell Murders by Robert Van Gulik. Not only did this help me meet the aforementioned goal, it also served as the letter "V" for the A-Z Mystery Authors Challenge and let me complete the mysterious alphabet.
This book, originally published in 1958, is actually set in the China of about the 7th century. Van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat and a well-known authority on Chinese history and culture. He drew his plots, settings, and character-development from Chinese literature--particularly the popular detective novels of the period. The story tells us of the adventures and rulings of Judge Dee in the early days overseeing the tribunal of Poo-yang. When he takes over the tribunal, he finds that there is one case which his predecessor has left him. It involves the brutal rape and murder of the daughter of Butcher Hsai. Pure Jade was found in her room and her lover has been accused and all-but convicted by the previous judge. But when Judge Dee reads over the court records and examines the witnesses for himself, he feels that there is more to the story than meets the eye. While he and his assistants search for clues to the real murderer, he also finds himself faced with rumors that the monks who inhabit the Buddhist Temple of Boundless Mercy, run by an abbot by the name of "Spiritual Virtue," may not be as virtuous as they seem. Their temple appears to be far more prosperous than a Buddhist temple should be and there is doubt that the marvelous "cures" for barren women are really as other-worldy as reported. And finally, there is the case of the deranged elderly woman who has tried for years to get justice for wrongs done to her family by an influential man of business. Is there truth to her ravings or is she just truly insane?
I have to say that Van Gulik obviously know his stuff. He produces the China of the period with great detail and flair and I felt as though I were really in a tribunal of the time period. Full marks for historical detail and atmosphere. He also is very adept at writing in what purports to be the style of the period (and I can well believe it). However, I must also say that the style of the period is not to my liking. The assumptions of guilt and the phrasing of questions just don't sit will with me. I'm also not real keen on the whole "beat a confession out of the guilty party" thing. Judge Dee is an interesting character and I do like the way he reasons--and doesn't accept everything at face value, but I don't think this is a series that I could read a whole lot of. Two and a half stars (almost three).
Last book of 2011: Beware of Trains by Edmund Crispin. This is a collection of short stories--with all but two of the sixteen featuring that delightful Oxford don, Gervase Fen. It would be difficult to give you a run-down without spoiling the stories. Let me just say that they are almost all extraordinarily good. We have everything from the story of the missing train conductor to the affair of the disappearing car, black necktie and abortive theft. There's the ex-army man who takes pot-shots at Inspector Humbleby and the drowned man who lost everything but his boots and the locked room that wasn't. And more. And all of them told in the fabulously witty Crispin style. I'm so very glad that I chose it as my last read of 2011. Four stars.
And a favorite quote:
"Discretion," said Fen with great complacency, "is my middle name."
"I dare say. But very few people use their middle names." [Inspector Humbleby]
~from the short story "Within the Gates"