Turning Japanese #16: Murder in the Red Chamber (2004) by Taku Ashibe (translated by Tyran Grillo)

Yuan-Chun, recently made Principal Consort and Chief Secretary of the Phoenix Palace by His Imperial Majesty, has been granted permission for a brief trip home to see her family. To mark the occasion, the Jias have built the beautiful Prospect Garden. When she leaves, Yuan-Chun gives orders that her female cousins and brother, Bao-yu, should live there with each being granted their own residence. However what was intended to be an earthly paradise soon becomes a living hell when the women start to be killed one by one.

The setting of this mystery is taken from the eighteenth century Chinese epic “The Dream of the Red Chamber” (or “The Story of the Stone”) by Cao Xueqin and some knowledge of this work may have been of value – for example the Wikipedia article explains that in the English translation by David Hawkes, he deliberately kept the names of the main characters in pinyin, translated the names of servants into English, the names of Daoists and Buddhists into Latin, and the names of actors and actresses into French. This convention was used by Grillo for his translation of this mystery.

The solution is really quite interesting and says something quite important to today’s society and the final image is haunting.

Unfortunately it is an absolute slog to get there. The Chinese surname-first name convention is used which is hard when most of the characters are Jia-this and Jia-that. The first chapter opens with a clumsy info dump of who everyone is in the Jia family is but this can be seen from the detailed family tree. There are so many characters but few have any depth. There is no clear sense of when certain events have occurred in relation to each other. There are multiple murders but insufficient time is given to each and no real detection is done – the sleuth simply presents his conclusions of what may have happened without any real build-up or considerations of the alternatives.

One point of interest to me was that among the literature of crime presented to Bao-yu by Tealeaf were the cases of Judge Di Renjie, a real-life figure who was the inspiration for Robert van Gulik’s “Judge Dee” series of books. Having translated the eighteenth century “Di Gong An” as “Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee”, van Gulik wrote his own mysteries in the Chinese style, normally involving three initially separate cases which would end up being connected.

Click here for more reviews of Japanese mystery fiction.


One thought on “Turning Japanese #16: Murder in the Red Chamber (2004) by Taku Ashibe (translated by Tyran Grillo)”

  1. I wanted to like this, but also came away rather underwhelmed by the experience. Some good solutions IIRC, but the book as a whole has not lived in my memory and I can’t say my impressions are wholly positive.


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