The Willow Pattern (1965) by Robert Van Gulik

It has been a while since I have read something from Gulik’s Judge Dee series. My reluctance to return to him sooner is partly because having read his earlier work I am now faced with his later poorer efforts. However, the blurb for this story, (another charity shop find), intrigued me due to Judge Dee being required to go back to the Imperial capital, which is suffering from the plague.

The story begins well, deviating from Gulik’s usual style, as the opening of the book has a woman and a helper move a dead body, positioning it so it looks like they have died from an accidental death. The initial setting is also strong with a city silently despairing of the ever increasing death count. Various procedures are put into place to deal with these deaths, including enrolling men into scavenging for dead bodies and taking them away to be burnt. This decision though does have a few flaws, given that the men are drawn from the criminal classes and therefore are keen to exploit this opportunity for their own ends.

The body which is moved at the start of the novel is also soon identified, as the Merchant Mei, whose death has now meant the end of his family line. His family was one of the three old distinguished aristocratic families who used to rule the area before the emperor was established. Yet a second death is quick on the heels of the first; this time the head of the Yee family, one of the other old families. Although it is a clear case of murder, Judge Dee is still suspicious of the first one and is wondering whether they are part of a wider scheme. A slippery and ambiguous clue through the story is the willow pattern and readers will be impressed with how Dee unravels it – mainly because his final solutions for all the cases, although credible, do leave the reader wondering how Dee arrived at them so deftly. Whilst there are plenty of clues, of sorts, especially at the beginning of the story, I don’t think they are dealt with in a way that the reader can use them to identify the truth, as there is little discussion of them until the end.

On balance this read has confirmed my suspicion that the later Dee novels are not up to the standard of the earlier ones. Not entirely sure why these later efforts lack the charm of the earlier ones, though I wonder whether the choice of cases or mode of investigation might be part of it. Or perhaps my reading tastes have changed or novelty of reading mysteries in early China has worn off? Either way I don’t think I will be trying any new Gulik reads any time soon. Though to end on a more positive note I did find it quite cool that one of the female characters had very deadly sleeves, loaded with iron balls, to inflict on attackers. I feel like carrying an iron ball in each sleeve, would definitely be a new way to get toned arms!

So after two less than brilliant reads I am quite relieved that my next one is from one of my favourite mystery writers’ Delano Ames.

Rating: 3.5/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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4 Responses to The Willow Pattern (1965) by Robert Van Gulik

  1. ravenking81 says:

    “Though to end on a more positive note I did find it quite cool that one of the female characters had very deadly sleeves, loaded with iron balls, to inflict on attackers. I feel like carrying an iron ball in each sleeve, would definitely be a new way to get toned arms!”

    I remember this part 🙂 Which means I must have read this one even though the rest of the plot is a bit blurry. I usually find the various subplots in these books rather tedious, I like the ones more where the judge does most of the investigation himself.

    I never noticed the decline in quality, but I have read the series out of order. Towards the end of his life Van Gulik was suffering from illness, he died of lung cancer, which might be an explanation for the weaker writing. Interestingly one of my favourite Judge Dee novels is “Necklace and Calabash” which I noticed is the penultimate entry in the series.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. TomCat says:

    I don’t remember enough of The Willow Pattern to comment on it, but agree with ravenking81 that Necklace and Calabash is a good one and, quality-wise, somewhat reminiscent of the earlier titles in the series.

    You should consider re-reading one of those earlier titles, like The Chinese Gold Murders or The Red Pavilion, before taking another prolonged break from Van Gulik.

    Liked by 1 person

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