Written by PA De Voe — If you want a total escape from Brexit and Trump, PA De Voe’s second Ming Dynasty mystery, No Way to Die, will take you away from it all and back to late 1300s China. As a devoted fan of the Judge Dee mysteries of Robert van Gulik, set 600 years earlier in the Tang Dynasty, I was delighted to find this well-crafted series.
De Voe sets her characters in the middle of classic plot problems. In No Way to Die, young woman doctor Xiang-hua is asked to serve as coroner to determine whether the mangled body of a stranger found in the village herbalist’s pig pen got there through foul play. Alas, the pig had made a bit of a meal of the man before his body was removed.
Men in the community are concerned that the sight of the mangled corpse may be too much for the young Xiang-hua, who is used to treating women, and live ones at that. But she does not shrink from the task. Trained as a healer by her grandmother, Xiang-hua is determined to fulfill her obligations and strikes a feminist note that resonates in the 21st century. It’s tough, but she’s in possession of herself well enough to work out that the dead man, muddy and bloody, had been stabbed in the back.
The schoolmaster for Xiang-hua’s family, Shu-chang, who secretly loves Xiang-hua, hurries to the scene to offer unwanted assistance, volunteering his services to help in the investigation. The local officials want to figure out who the victim is and, if possible, who stabbed him, before they report the crime to higher authorities. Failure on their part is likely to bring down the wrath of the bureaucracy, never a pleasant occurrence in medieval China, as punishments were plentiful and harsh. The ticking clock is one example of how De Voe uses 700-year-old realities to create situations that adhere to one of the basic memes of modern crime stories.
Xiang-hua, within the circumscribed role available to her, and Shu-chang, much more free to visit the notorious criminal quarter where they believe the stranger was staying, proceed to investigate. Each gleans small pieces of information from the people they interview and gradually a picture of the goings-on near the herbalist’s cottage emerges. It isn’t a pretty one, either.
The herbalist is not a popular person, and more than one village resident has a motive to defame him, or worse. Placing a body in his pig pen is a sure way to bring troublesome scrutiny on him. Very possibly, he would be charged with murder himself and face a swift execution.
De Voe’s prose is deceptively simple. No lengthy descriptions, just enough information to let you picture the scene – a style in keeping with both the era in which the stories are set and the heavily verb-dependent Chinese language. Yet, her training as an anthropologist and her advanced degree in Asian studies mean that what she writes carries an authority based on deep knowledge of that long-ago culture and society.
No Way to Die is a trip back to a simpler time, and though the culture was so different, human emotions and motivations are the same across the eons. I’ll be looking forward to more of PA De Voe’s historical crime novels.
Snorri Kristjansson’s Kin also features a young healer solving mysteries, but during the Viking period in Scandinavia.
Drum Tower Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars