The Corpse Reader (another historical whodunnit in the same vein as The Hangman’s Daughter series) is published through Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s international/translation imprint. I bought it because it was advertised on my Kindle as the “Daily Deal”. Not so much for the low price – though I am surprised to admit that did play a small part – but mainly because it caught my eye as being something I’d actually enjoy reading (unlike say, Wedding Cakes and Big Mistakes which is currently polluting the screen of my device. Porn would be less embarrassing).
The hero of The Corpse Reader is Cí , a character based on Song Cí, the real life historical figure considered to be the father of forensic science. He lived during the Tsong Dynasty (1206). And so like The Mistress of the Art of Death series (do you see a pattern developing here?) by Ariana Franklin we have a Sherlock Holmes figure who pre-dates Doyle’s Sherlock and at the same time draws on the popular historic novel genre. What gives The Corpse Reader an edge is that the author not only spent years researching the period, he also seems to have at knack for the tone/style of Chinese authors. When I compare The Corpse Reader to my (admittedly limited) experience with reading Chinese literature there are some cultural idiosyncracies that Garrido gets right. The extreme deference to male authority figures, uncomfortable sexual relationships, the cut-throat political machinations of the Tsong Emperor’s Court. And bad luck. Chinese protagonists experience an inordinate amount of bad luck. If it wasn’t for bad luck, as the saying goes, they’d have no luck at all.
Cí shuddered at the sight of the City of Death. In Wang’s view, to dock there was to engage in a dangerous game of chance. The place was infested with outlaws, fugitives, traffickers, cardsharps – all of them ready to bleed dry any foreigner. But as the barge approached, the wharf area, swathed in mist, looked abandoned, and the crews of the hundreds of docked boats were nowhere to be seen. Even the water lapping against the boats’ sides seemed particularly gloomy.
“Be on your guard,” whispered Wang.
They glided toward the primary dock and began to see people running between the warehouses. Cí looked down just as a dead body, surrounded by a bloody spew, floated past. Other bodies floated nearby.
“The plague!” cried Ze.
Wang nodded, and Third and Peach Blossom came and huddled next to Cí. He tried to discern the shore, but the mist was too thick.
“We’ll go downstream,” Wang said. “You,” he added, addressing Peach Blossom, “grab a pole and help.”
Instead of doing as she was told, Peach Blossom grabbed Third and made to throw her into the water. Third struggled hard and began to cry. The prostitute’s face had become a wicked mask.
“The money!” she shouted. “Give me the money or I swear I’ll throw her in!”
Cí is a lightning rod for bad luck. But like a lightning rod all his bad luck and misfortune deflects onto those around him. After tragedy strikes his family – and forces him to become of fugitive from the law – Ci journeys to the capital determined to find a way to resume his studies at University. A series of misadventures occur. Eventually our young hero finds himself, and his extraordinary powers of observation, at the service of the Emperor. He is commanded to solve a series of murders connected to the Court . In a situation he cannot win, surrounded by people he dare not trust, Ci’s struggles to attain his dreams. You struggle with him. Which makes The Corpse Reader hard to put down.
I’m providing only the barest of outlines because Antonio Garrido has crafted a plot that challenges and surprises. One that deserves to be read spoiler free. And the translator, Thomas Bunstead, was partly responsible for one of my favorite books of 2012: The Polish Boxer. The Corpse Reader is an entirely different kind of book, story and setting. Bunstead seems to view that as a chance to show his versatility, and I’ve no doubt that the tone/style I tried to describe earlier can be in part attributed to his skills as a translator.
Engaging characters, a mystery that keeps you guessing, a translated crime novel from somewhere other than Sweden – The Corpse Reader is something different to add to your Summer Reading List. Available for a limited time on the Kindle for $3.99.*
Publisher: Amazon Crossing, Las Vegas (2013)
ISBN: 978 1 6121 8436 4
*Disclaimer: I’m not being paid by Amazon. I just think that’s funny.