The Monkey and the Tiger (1965) by Robert Van Gulik

In my pre-blogging days I read a number of the earlier Judge Dee books and I remember finding them quite good. However, once I started reviewing some of the later books in the series, I began to become disenchanted. Will the trend continue with today’s read?

Synopsis

‘The Monkey and the Tiger includes two detective stories, ‘The Morning of the Monkey’ and ‘The Night of the Tiger.’ In the first, a gibbon drops an emerald in the open gallery of Dee’s residence, leading the Judge to discover a strangely mutilated body in the woods. In the second, Dee is traveling to the Imperial capital to assume his new position when he is separated from his escort by a flood and marooned in a large country house surrounded by fierce bandits. Here, Dee confronts a ghostly apparition on a balcony and manages to solve the mystery.’

Overall Thoughts

As the synopsis describes, this book contains two separate Judge Dee novelettes, (I didn’t feel they were quite long enough to be novellas). ‘The Morning of the Monkey’ is set during Judge Dee’s time as a magistrate of the lake district Han-yuan, which places it around the same period as The Chinese Lake Mystery (1960). Judge Dee’s usual right-hand men are working on a case elsewhere, so the investigation focuses more upon Dee and his newer assistant Tao Gan. Tao Gan has only been working for Judge Dee for 10 months and was previously a professional swindler, and the fake cards he used then, he uses in this story to gain information for the case. Tao Gan is not afraid to question some of his employer’s conclusions about the mysteries they are looking into, and Judge Dee consults him on vagabond culture. Tao Gan is not the only employee of Judge Dee with a criminal past, and this put me in mind of Francois Vidocq who was an adventurer and criminal who helped to create the French police force in the early 1800s. There are several key figures to be interviewed in this case and Gulik does well to add layers of meaning through them, with new information changing how Judge Dee sees the situation. False solutions also figure in this tale.

Meanwhile ‘The Night of the Tiger’ takes place just after The Chinese Nail Murders (1960), with the conclusion to that case still lingering and preying in Judge Dee’s mind. So much so that I think it causes him to act in an untypically foolhardy way: ‘all the pent-up emotions of the last few days found an outlet in a sudden, savage rage.’ Some of his earlier decisions in this story are not ones I would have expected him to make, and I am not surprised by the reaction he receives when he turns up alone at the fortress in the forest (a.k.a. the country house the blurb mentions). This poor response contrasts with the prestige promotion he has been given recently.

This story certainly has its thriller aspects to it as upon arrival Judge Dee quickly sees the peril he has placed himself into, with the fortress being surrounded by a group of bandits named the Flying Tigers, and the land the fortress is situated upon is cut off through flooding. In some ways this reminded me of the setup of Brian Flynn’s Invisible Death (1934), not least when it seems like danger might be located within the fortress too. Nevertheless, the danger Judge Dee places himself in does wonders for his mental apathy, as he balances solving a mysterious death and missing gold within the fortress, whilst preparing for a bandit attack. I felt the components of this story made it apt for adaptation for TV as it is quite action focused. There is an interesting reversal of events at the denouement, though I thought some aspects of the conclusion were resolved too easily.

On the one hand I have read Judge Dee stories which have appealed less to me, but on the other I still don’t think I have been able to recapture the enthusiasm I had for this series. Has anyone else had that problem with a series?

Rating: 3.5/5

9 comments

  1. I haven’t read any Judge Dee stories yet but have a set on my TBR; they do intrigue me because of the historical component more than the mysteries.
    I have had this issue with some childhood books certainly–didn’t find them as appealing when I (re)read them as an adult.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The earlier titles are generally more liked than the later ones, but The Chinese Gold Murders was not as brilliant, or Carr-like, upon rereading. The Red Chamber, on the other hand, was as good (if not better) as I remembered from my first read. I also remember liking Necklace and Calabash, which is one of those later titles that needs a second look.

    “…I still don’t think I have been able to recapture the enthusiasm I had for this series.

    Have you read his short story collection, Judge Dee at Work? A few small sparks might rekindle your enthusiasm.

    Liked by 1 person

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