Monday, August 6, 2018

The Lacquer Screen: Review

The Lacquer Screen by Robert Van Gulik was published in 1962, but is set in the China of about the 7th century. Van Gulik was not only a Dutch diplomat, but also a well-known authority on Chinese history and culture. He drew his background from Chinese literature of the period and used the actual historical figure of Judge Dee  (Ti Jen-chieh or Di Renjie), a magistrate of the Tang court. This particular book finds his protagonist, Judge Dee, and his right-hand man Chiao Tai taking a break from magisterial duties and arriving incognito in the small town of Peng-lai. He pays a courtesy call on the senior magistrate of the town who is feeling quite unwell. Teng Kan, the magistrate, shows Judge Dee a beautiful lacquer screen that originally portrayed two lovers. Now it has been changed to show one lover stabbing the other. Teng Kan fears that he is going insane and is doomed to murder his wife as depicted on the screen. It seems he is right when Silver Lotus, the wife, is found murdered in the marshes. Judge Dee is determined to discover the truth of this murder and also finds himself involved in the death of a local banker. He continues to act undercover--even to the extent of insinuating himself into a gang of robbers--in order to get to the bottom of it all.

I have to admit that Van Gulik obviously knows his stuff. He produces  the China of the period with great detail and flair and I felt as though I were really visiting a small town of the time period. He gets full marks for historical detail and atmosphere. He is also very adept at writing in what purports to be the style of the period. However, as I mentioned in my first review of his work, I just don't think the style of the period is for me. It's not that it's bad; it's just not that gripping and the method of building the story isn't quite to my liking. It's certainly not in the classic detective style where clues are paraded before the reader and misdirection is employed to lead us up the garden path. It's pretty obvious who killed Silver Lotus--but it's not quite so obvious what the motive is. But Judge Dee (who is perceptive enough to see all) will explain it to us. A middle-of-of the road read: ★★

[Finished 7/28/18]


TomCat said...

I agree that this one, as far as plot goes, is far from the strongest title in the Judge Dee series. If you're planning on returning to Van Gulik in the future, I recommend The Chinese Gold Murders, The Red Pavilion and Necklace and Calabash. Or the short story collection Judge Dee at Work.

Bev Hankins said...

Thanks, TomCat. I'll keep my eye out for copies of those.