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Monthly Archives: May 2014

Review: Whose Body?

Whose Body?
Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Nervous architect Mr. Thipps had the unpleasant surprise of finding a dead gentleman wearing nothing but a pince-nez in his bathtub. At the same time a famous financier of roughly the same description has been found to have disappeared from his own bedroom.
Could this be the same person? As it turns out: no.
Still, there are some very curious elements in these cases that seem to overlap in strange ways. The first case is investigated by Lord Peter Wimsey, an aristocrat with the rather unbecoming hobby of investigating crime, the latter by his friend Inspector Parker. They soon come to the conclusion that both cases are somehow linked, and start investigating a dastardly crime.

This is the first Lord Peter Wimsey novel, and it is evident why there would be sequels. It is without a doubt a strong story, quite gruesome in parts, and in others oddly whimsical [hehe]. The novels have been written during the 20s and 30s, and so actually by now are a sort of historical document of criminology (or at least mystery novels) in addition to being good yarns. Wimsey himself is more fleshed out as a character than other, similar copycats would later be. A shellshocked veteran of WWI, Cambridge graduate, gourmet and bibliophile, he easily puts on a mask of an aristocratic buffon whenever he finds it necessary to further his goals. Not that his natural state is so much less of an ass. Sometimes you just want to hit him in the face. I guess it is the sign of a good author that she can create a character that one can both despise and root for at the same time.
Later books developed his character further, and into more positive directions, but this book is already rather enjoyable. If there is one thing that bugs me it is the ending. Without spoiling too much, it was just too neat, too easy in the end. There is absolutely no doubt who did it, because the police caught the perpetrator just as he was writing a detailed explanation of what he had done and how.

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Review: The Chinese Maze Murders

The Chinese Maze Murders
The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert van Gulik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Judge Dee novels by Robert van Gulik are a strange beast. The author was in the Dutch diplomatic service in Asia during WWII and decided to translate an old Chinese mystery novel based on stories of the historical Judge Dee Renjie. (the Tang-era personality still is well-known in China, there have been two high-end movies and multiple TV series based on the same character within the last decade or so).
The original book, the Dee Gong An, was written by an anonymous author in 17th century Ming-dynasty China, and recounted three cases as they were solved by the main character and his assistants.
After this translation saw some success on the market van Gulik decided to try his hand on writing mysteries in the same style as the original book, which makes this book, and all of the 14 or so that followed, basically fanfiction.
Rather good fanfiction though, and some that captures ancient China in a way that it hardly has been before or after in the west. Robert van Gulik was a noted Sinologist, and he seemed to go out of his way to let his knowledge shine through, even if the structure of the novel was slightly westernized. (traditional Chinese mysteries had a Columbo-style reverse Whodunit format, where the murderer is known from the beginning).

The Chinese Maze Murders is one of the earlier books in the series, and very closely follows the model set by the original book, but allows for some deviations. One of these is the framing narrative which has a Ming-dynasty gentleman writing down a story related by someone he met in a wineshop. Which explains why this story has the social conventions of the Ming Dynasty instead of the Tang Dynasty, and all other historical inaccuracies. (cute, but a bit bothersome; van Gulik would later fade out this part of his narrative structure, after it became more and more bothersome to use it).
It also has a slightly cumbersome beige prose format, which takes getting used to. This is a direct holdover from the original novel, which tried to related things like a true crime account/court document than a western novel. This also would be abandoned in later novels.

Judge Dee has just been assigned to the far off border province of Fan Lan when he already has to deal with a few mysteries and a political powder keg: a local strongman has taken over the city by bribery and force and killed at least one previous magistrate, a widow relates the story of a weird testament to him, a girl has disappeared, and a retired general has been murdered in his own locked study. The judge and his assistants go on doing their jobs trying to unravel these mysteries at the same time.

It is this interconnectedness of the cases which makes these novels so interesting. A judge/magistrate in ancient China often had his hands full with things and could not just leave one case lie around while he cared about the others.
And so one case might be solved, but in it’s wake leave an even bigger mystery.

In my opinion this is a perfect little gem of a book. Later books in the series varied the formula towards a more westernized form of storytelling, but in this book we have something that both provides a look at normal life in ancient China, and a good mystery story.

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Review: Starfighters of Adumar

Starfighters of Adumar
Starfighters of Adumar by Aaron Allston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One thing that is very noticeable is that the situation the protagonists get thrown in in this book is suspiciously specific for their skillsets. Adumar is a slightly backwards world that has just contacted the New Republic and would be open for negotiations. There is one small problem though: they don’t want to negotiate with career politicians, they only will accept starfighter pilots as negotiators.
And so Wedge Antilles and a few others from Rogue Squadron end up on Adumar and have to deal with a lot of culture clash and cloak and dagger espionage business. It turns out that Adumar is actually a balkanised world and that they only were contacted by the most powerful nation there, that the Imperials were contacted at the same time and now are competing with them, and that the Adumari are not only fond of starfighter pilots, they are obsessed with them. And with honor. And with honorable feuds to the death. In one of the funniest sequences in the book our heroes are on a stake out when someone else sneaks in and wants to use the same hiding place.

At one point during the later part of the novel our pilot heroes are so fed up with this world and their idea of honorable combat that they’d like to tell them to screw themselves and just go home. But they are our heroes, and so of course they don’t and save the day instead.

The novel is not exactly Shakespeare, but it is definitely one of the better Star Wars novels out there. It is fun to read, the worldbuilding is impressive for Star Wars (remember, this is the franchise that gave us such interesting locales as a desert planet, a swamp planet, a city planet, and a Northern Italy planet), and it works as a coherent story on its own.

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