I'm a librarian who loves anime, manga, and reading a wide variety of genres.
In this book, Judge Dee handles three cases. In the first, two traveling silk merchants stay at a hostel and are later found murdered. The hostel owner is accused of robbing and killing them, although it's immediately clear to Judge Dee that there's more to the case than that. In the second, Judge Dee listens to an old woman's story about her son's death and her daughter-in-law's strange behavior in the period since then. He immediately suspects that the son was poisoned and that his wife had something to do with it. But can he get her to confess? The third case involves a beautiful young bride who may have been poisoned by a jealous scholar.
Although van Gulik explained in his notes that, contrary to modern Western mystery readers' expectations, Judge Dee would be handling these cases simultaneously, I didn't initially understand what that meant. I figured that it would be like mystery novels where one mystery takes precedence but little ones crop up in the middle for a bit of variety. Or perhaps it would be more like a short story anthology, with each story stitched together with transitional scenes in which criminals were punished or Judge Dee got caught up on his paperwork.
Instead, Judge Dee went hunting for clues/information about the double murder and accidentally stumbled across another mystery. He couldn't just ignore it, so he started investigating that one too. And, although a single symbolism-filled dream gave Judge Dee hints for all three cases, none of the cases were related in any way. It was definitely different from what I'm used to in my mystery reading, but not in a bad way.
All right, backing up a bit: I originally bought this during a used book shopping trip because I remembered watching and enjoying Detective Dee and the Phantom Flame. It was way more action-packed than this book, and I don't recall the movie's Detective Dee ever torturing anyone the way Judge Dee did, but I might have blocked that out. Still, despite the differences, I'm glad the movie got me to try this book.
While I probably would have found the mysteries interesting without van Gulik's notes, there are several aspects of the book that likely would have taken me aback without the context that he provided. The torture, for one thing, as well as the way some of the final sentencing was carried out. There was also a bit of an edutainment factor - van Gulik's analysis of the legal aspects of the book was fascinating, and I'm looking forward to eventually reading the original Judge Dee books he wrote after translating this book.
I was somewhat worried that this would be a dry read, but thankfully that turned out not to be the case, and van Gulik's notes added another level to my enjoyment. Although this can't quite be read with the same expectations one might have for a modern Western mystery - it was a shock when, before even seeing the crime scene, Judge Dee had a warden beaten for the way he'd handled the investigation's initial steps, and I winced at the part where Judge Dee decided to forgo an autopsy on a poisoning victim because the victim's family was so scholarly and respectable - it wasn't as far outside modern mystery expectations as I thought it might be. There were even a few nice humorous bits here and there (or at least humorous to me). I got a kick out of the false name Judge Dee chose for himself at one point in the story, as well as Ma Joong (one of Judge Dee's lieutenants) excitement at getting to play the part of a thief.
(Original review posted on A Library Girl's Familiar Diversions.)