The Corpse Reader
Song Cí, a promising young scholar in medieval China, must give up his dream of taking the examination for imperial service when his brother is convicted of murder and his parents die in a fire. He flees his home with a sickly younger sister, tarnished by his family’s shame and forced to make a living as a gravedigger. When word spreads of his uncanny ability to “read” a corpse and deduce its secrets, Cí is summoned to the imperial court to solve a series of grisly murders.
This is a fun and informative tale of the historical father of forensic science, with rich and multilayered views of 13th-century Chinese society. The mystery unfolds neatly, and the author ties all the disparate threads together quite plausibly for a satisfying conclusion, though it often feels as though we are reading Cí’s clinical notebooks and not experiencing his investigation firsthand. My one real complaint is the characters. With few exceptions, Cí’s acquaintances are simply drawn and transparent in their motivations, each with little more to do than be piece of the puzzle. Cí’s sister, for example, drives the plot for two hundred pages then disappears the instant she becomes inconvenient. As for the protagonist himself, Cí is quite easily outwitted by the living despite his mastery of the dead. One would not think a scholar with Cí’s command of the law would be so boneheaded regarding matters of court protocol, or be so easily goaded into foolishness. Recommended, despite its flaws, for mystery readers with a scientific bent.