Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Papillon Rouge

「tell me something」 (Garnet Crow)

The wind at dusk, the city bathing in crimson
A sad scenery that reminds me of something
"Tell Me Something" (Garnet Crow)

I'm not really sure what to think about these covers for old Dutch Judge Dee books: they're so bad they're almost good. Almost.

Bad weather forces Judge Dee and subordinate Ma Joong to change their route back to their own district and make a detour through Paradise Island, a place built on man's cravings for drinking, gambling and prostitution and the govenment's cravings for tax money. The judge has a chance meeting with his esteemed collegue from the district, who asks the judge to help clean up a case of suicide here as he himself has other urgent business to attend to elsewhere. The victim died inside the Red Pavilion, which was locked from the inside, so it seems like an obvious case of suicice, but strangely enough, a similar suicide happened thirty years ago at the same place. And Paradise Island has more secrets in store for the judge: the number one courtesan Autumn Moon seems to have some connection to the suicide and seems rather keen on getting to know the judge really well, while Ma Joong discovers that the suicide of thirty years ago wasn't all what it seems either. And so the judge stays put in Paradise Island until he has solved all the mysteries in Robert van Gulik's The Red Pavilion (Dutch title: Het rode paviljoen, 1961)

The Red Pavilion is the seventh original Judge Dee novel by Dutch Sinologist Robert van Gulik and the second book to feature a more free style: the first five books (among which The Chinese Maze Murders and The Chinese Gold Murders) were heavily styled after the original gong'an detective stories, with a large cast and the formula of three intertwining mysteries for the judge to solve each story. From The Haunted Monastery on, van Gulik greatly reduced the cast (often by sending the judge away traveling with just one or two subordinates) and did not follow the formula set in the original stories so rigidly anymore. The books were still as enjoyable as ever, brimming with atmosphere like only van Gulik could conjure up and as it became less formulaistic, the stories also felt more fun to read as it was harder to guess what would come.

This time, a locked room mystery lays at the core of the story, multiple even, all happening inside the titular Red Pavilion (which also functions as Judge Dee's lodgings on Paradise Island). I have to say, I was very disappointed with the locked room mysteries: the solutions are basically Locked Room Mysteries 101 and while I wasn't expecting something too fancy, I was still hoping for something more complex than what was presented here. There is one part of the locked room mystery that is actually very neat though, which makes very good use of the setting and that what saves this part of the mystery for me. 

The Red Pavilion reminded me very much of Yokomizo Seishi's Jooubachi (1952) by the way, which also featured a mysterious death commited inside a Chinese-style room locked from the inside. Even the solutions have some similarities. I actually wonder if van Gulik actually read the book: they are not really similar, so I'm definitely not suggesting foul play or anything, but I could imagine van Gulik having read Jooubachi and then using very vague, broad elements of that story for The Red Pavilion.

Like with many of the Judge's stories, the bulk of the mystery is made out of intertwining storylines, where a discovery in one storyline, leads to another in a different storyline etc. The books are best enjoyed for seeing these plotlines slowly unraveling, rather than for the challenge of solving the mystery yourself. In general, I quite liked the setting of Paradise Island, but I thought the plot a bit disappointing. Judge Dee stories have a tendency to resemble each other and with a lot of plot twists I had the feeling I had seen them already in earlier books and certain tropes are repeated much too often to be surprising anymore (the Old Mysterious Man for example).

Overall, I found The Red Pavilion to be a slightly underwhelming mystery. The setting is enjoyable, but the mystery plot is a bit predictable and never impresses. The Haunted Monastery, released in the same year, is much more enjoyable overall in comparision, I think.


  1. I like that name "Autumn Moon."

  2. It's only the covers from this particular print run that are an atrocity. There are editions from the same period by Kramer Pockets, which have good, graphically pleasing looking covers. Unfortunately, they appear to be outnumbered by these brightly colored monstrosities.

    1. Well, at least the things on the cover are /related/ to the contents, but I think the covers of this series would make for great image material for a bit on Orientalism.

  3. what do you think about the upcoming Kogoro Akechi anime?

    1. I've been keeping an eye on the project ever since it was first announced several months ago, so looking forward to it (just like the Subete ga F ni naru anime by the way).