This book is the earliest of the Judge Dee novels that I've read. It was only the second one written and takes place just after Dee passes his examinations and is first appointed to the provinces. I have to say I preferred the earlier naïve and more engaging Dee to the later older version. The murders involved poisoned tea, corrupt monks, and of course prostitutes. One thing that was interesting about this book was the strong Korean presence in the city. Van Gulik said that he got the idea for this from reading Ennin's Diary, the travelogue of a Japanese Buddhist Monk who visited China during the Tang dynasty, who wrote about the strong Korean influence there. It was nice to see the cosmopolitan aspect of Tang life explored. This story introduced his two ex-highwayman assistants, who attempted to rob him on the road before coming to work for him. There was a great scene where they were fighting that seemed straight out of a kung fu movie as the soldiers rode up while they were fighting to rescue the Magistrate, and he said how they were just sparing.
In the afterward Van Gulik mentions how, as the Chinese mystery writers he was copying did, used the styles and cultures of the Ming dynasty even though they were set in the Tang. This made a lot of the anachronisms he uses make a lot more sense. Though it is nice that he keeps the Tang politics alive, particularly as these novels are set during the reign of Empress Wu. (He mentions that the main murder he borrows from a Chinese story which has Wu Zetian in the title. Which he has also translated, and now I need to find a copy of that as well!) I continue to greatly enjoy the Judge Dee mysteries and will carry on reading them till I have read them all....Continua