The Murder of Mr. Ma

Image of The Murder of Mr. Ma
Release Date: 
April 2, 2024
Soho Crime
Reviewed by: 

“Jump into this absurd and charming period mystery for the wild scenes of threat, battle, rescue, and humor, and make the most of the fun involved.”

The best background to bring to The Murder of Mr. Ma is a fondness for Agatha Christie novels, along with a willingness to accept pastiche, the gracious art of imitating a style of another author (or artist) and time period. Pacing the footsteps of many Sherlock Holmes pastiches (like the series featuring Holmes’s late-life wife Mary Russell, by Laurie R. King), Nee and Rozan apply this often-humorous technique to the Chinese detective tales of the early 1900s, and the ones that featured Judge Dee.

For true fans of the Judge Dee fiction, there are several deep and twisting rabbit holes here: The original Judge Dee stories featured a magistrate in China’s Tang court, 630–700 CE, and grew into an 18th century Chinese detective novel—which in turn was discovered by diplomat Robert van Gulik, who then created his own Judge Dee stories in the mid 1900s.

Ignoring that set of rabbit holes is a good idea when opening up The Murder of Mr. Ma, but many a fan of the mystery genre either has read the Judge Dee stories or knows of them. Moreover, Nee and Rozan’s lively pastiche is set in London in 1924 but with its own 1966 flash-forward and another lurch toward a “real” author of a novel that year—with the pen name Lao She. In the new mystery, Lao She is a shy academic secretly in love with his English landlady’s daughter (good luck there, Lao) and takes the role of Sherlock Holmes’s Dr. Watson in narrating the adventure he’s thrust into, when Judge Dee Ren Jie comes to the city.

Why does all this matter? Mostly because this tongue-in-cheek adventure with its portrait of opium dens, anti-Chinese sentiment, and yes, leaping martial artists appears to be the start of a series narrated by Lao She. That said, it’s perfectly possible to jump past the complications and plunge right into the plot. After all, how could Lao She ignore a plea for assistance from the highly respected Judge Dee?

Sherlockians will see something of Dr. John Watson in Lao She’s eager desire to be useful beyond narration. And like Holmes, Judge Dee has a soft spot for opium. But in the case of this military veteran turned investigator, it’s not boredom that leads to addiction. Rather, Judge Dee suffers deep guilt for his actions on the battlefield. Here in peacetime London, more of the men that the judge had led into conflict are being killed by someone using a Chinese-style butterfly sword. Why? It’s not the war behind them, so it must relate to some sort of criminal lust of the moment.

Afflicted up by the drug and perched on a rainy rooftop, Dee experiences an inquisition from the battlefield judge Lin Tse Shu, who booms, “Dee Ren Jie! Three men known to you have been brutally murdered. It is your duty to investigate these crimes. Yet here you sit in the rain paralyzed by opium. Do you deny it?”

Other noted figures pop into the story, including Bertrand Russell and Ezra Pound. In an afterword, the authors credit a kung fu consultant, as well as years of research. Again, step around the rabbit holes—jump into this absurd and charming period mystery for the wild scenes of threat, battle, rescue, and humor—and make the most of the fun involved. After all, that’s clearly what Nee and Rozan like best.