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18th-century murder mystery still delivers

by David Cozy

MURDER IN THE RED CHAMBER, by Taku Ashibe, translated by Tyran C. Grillo. Kurodahan Press, 2012, 268 pp., $16.00 (paperback).

Anthony West has called “Dream of the Red Chamber,” a Chinese novel written in the 18th century, “beyond question one of the great novels of all literature,” and many eminent scholars and critics have agreed with him. That being the case, one feels one really should read it. Many will hesitate, though, before committing themselves to David Hawkes’ five-volume translation — as excellent as that translation is reputed to be. They might turn instead to Chi-Chen Wang’s much shorter abridged version, and, as Arthur Waley has written, “in Wang’s hands [they] will be perfectly safe.” If, however, even a safely abridged version of a novel that is, after all, from a very different time and place seems daunting, there is now another port of entry: Taku Ashibe’s “Murder in the Red Chamber.”

Ashibe, a prize-winning novelist and screen-writer, has given us a book that features the characters, world, and even some of the events of “Dream of the Red Chamber,” but manages to deploy them in the service of what might be called not a locked-room, but a locked-compound mystery, since the murder alluded to in the title—there’s more than one—takes place in the adjoining compounds of two branches of a successful, but declining, aristocratic family. The Qing Dynasty culture in which the book is set will be new to many readers, but they will find their passage into its fascinating foreignness eased by their familiarity with the genre conventions Ashibe employs.

The detective who is assigned to investigate the crimes, for example, is diligent and thorough, but he is no match for the main character (of Ashibe’s book as well as the original), a boy named Bao-yu, who, though still an adolescent, is able to see things the official investigator misses. Mystery readers will immediately recognize the dynamic: The policeman, however well-intentioned and hardworking is always, in comparison with the flamboyant free-lancer, a plodder: Think, for example, of Sherlock Holmes and the unimaginative Inspector Lestrade.

Likewise, the puzzles that abound in this novel will be recognizable as the sorts of irrational impossibilities that the hyper-rational detective will, in the end, explain. How, for example, could a murderer strangle a woman in full view of a crowd watching from the opposite side of a lake and then disappear from a securely guarded garden?

How could a woman be killed in a locked room to which no one could have had access (this one’s almost required in this kind of mystery)?

Translator Tyran Grillo’s English, too, will make readers feel at home. The lead detective is, after all, a boy, so it’s entirely appropriate that the novel’s prose recalls the breathless narration of a “Boy’s Own” adventure story. Indeed, so gripping are the events Ashibe and Grillo recount that even those with no interest in entering the original “Dream of the Red Chamber” will relish “Murder in the Red Chamber” for the thrills it offers, and by the time they turn the last page, they may well crave further immersion in the world to which they have been introduced.