Sherlock Holmes in medieval China? Yes, please!
Archaia usually publishes interesting comics, so when I saw that they were publishing this, which is set in the early 11th century and stars a historical figure of the Song Dynasty who went around making sure the provincial adminstrators weren’t corrupt but in this book is more like Sherlock Holmes, I figured it would be a good read. It’s written by Patrick Marty, drawn by Chongrui Nie, and costs $14.95.
As usual with mysteries, the biggest problem I have with this book is that the mystery isn’t very good.
Judge Bao arrives in a city and hears a story told by a dying woman about her son. The son, Chao Dong, was engaged at birth to be married to Yu, a girl who was born on the same day as he was to a lifelong friend of his father’s. Through various reversals and advances of fortune, Yu’s father became rich while Chao Dong’s remained relatively poor. So Yu’s father broke the engagement because he wanted his daughter to marry up. Yu told Chao Dong that she would be willing to give him her jewels so he could sell them and get enough money for a dowry, but when Chao Dong went to get the jewels from Yu’s maid, the maid was dead and the jewels were gone. Chao Dong had no alibi for the time of the crime, so he was thrown in prison, where he’s still languishing three years later. Judge Bao promises to look into the case, especially when he hears that Judge Gu, one of the administrators of the city, is corrupt and is throwing a lot of innocent people into prison. So the book is not only about Judge Bao’s quest for justice for one man, but his investigation into Judge Gu and the other corrupt adminstrators.
As I pointed out, the actual mystery isn’t that interesting. Once we find out that only two other people knew about Chao Dong’s visit to Yu’s house, it becomes fairly easy to figure out who killed the maid. Judge Bao uncovers the corruption fairly easily, too, although he has to go up against the entire administration, so it takes a bit longer to sort that out.
So while the plot is fairly standard, the book is still pretty interesting, because Marty does a nice job with the main character and his retainers, and it’s also a good look into the way China was run a millennium ago. The characters, for instance, are slightly familiar but, because of the foreignness of both the time period and the culture, act differently than we might expect in certain situations. This is especially true of Judge Bao himself, who is trying to get justice for the innocent but often acts like, well, a douchebag. He is imperious and snide, but he’s also concerned with rooting out corruption. As he’s an ancient Chinese Sherlock Holmes analogue, perhaps the personality deficits he shows aren’t that surprising, but because he’s an actual administrator and not an outsider, his manner is much more jarring than Holmes’. It’s also interesting to read something where the feelings of people are often the last thing considered – in his resolution, Bao glosses over what seems like a key plot point in order to maintain the order in society, which is what he (and the empire’s rulers in general) were concerned about. It makes this tale, which doesn’t hold too many surprises, more interesting for the cultural aspect of how Chinese society functioned.
Nie’s art is marvelous. The black-and-white, rough line work makes this looks like woodcuts, which makes it look more “ancient Chinese,” if that makes sense. The roughness of the lines helps overcome the occasional stiffness of the posed characters, because the scratchiness of the work adds a sense of realism.
Nie uses hatching to this good effect to make the town look older and less modern while also highlighting the fine craftsmanship that goes into carving the wood for the adornment of the houses, for instance. There’s a beautiful sense of the time and place in this book, which helps make the story more believable. Early on in the book, I wasn’t sure if Nie could pull off action scenes (if they were needed) because of the way he drew the characters, but later on there’s a few action scenes and he draw them very nicely. The only problem I have with the art, and it may be only me, is that there are a lot of male characters, and it’s occasionally difficult to tell them apart. Judge Bao, his bodyguard Zhan Zhao, and Chao Dong are the most important male characters, and they’re easily distinguishable, but as there’s no color (so there’s no slight differences in skin pigment) and the men all follow the same fashion choices (they dress very much alike, and most of them have mustaches and/or beards), they kind of blend together. I suppose it doesn’t matter too much, because they’re a bunch of bureaucrats, but it is somewhat frustrating. Overall, however, the artwork is very good.
Despite the somewhat standard murder mystery plot, I can Recommend Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix because sometimes, the plot isn’t the most important part of a book. It’s very hard to write a good murder mystery, after all (I know, because I’ve tried it), and what makes this book good is the way Marty and Nie create these interesting characters during a fascinating time period. It’s a keen comic, and I look forward to Judge Bao’s next case. Judge Bao has justice to dispense!